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Sen. Rubio sidesteps spat over Univision, debate boycott

WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was thrust into the bright national spotlight of Republican presidential politics Wednesday — and not just because he's a potential short-lister for the vice presidential ticket.

The usually eloquent Rubio was relatively speechless Wednesday when he was asked about his role in the decision by nearly every major Republican candidate to boycott a presidential debate sponsored by Spanish-language media giant Univision because of allegations that it tried to pressure Rubio into a sit-down interview.

"I think it's unfortunate. The whole thing is something I really don't even want to comment on," Rubio said during an interview with National Journal's Major Garrett at the Washington Ideas Forum, an event featuring some of the country's biggest boldfaced names, including the current and most recent vice presidents.

"I didn't want to comment on it when it happened," Rubio told Garrett. "I think people read the articles, they speak for themselves, they're accurate. I know you have to ask, but I really don't even want to address the whole issue. I really don't want to give that thing any oxygen."

That "thing" Rubio referred to is the allegation that Univision tried to strong-arm him with a controversial story about a relative's drug bust 24 years ago. Those allegations prompted six of the Republican presidential candidates to boycott the network's proposed debate, tentatively scheduled for two days before Florida's Jan. 31 GOP presidential primary: Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann.

The boycotts came at the behest of three Florida Hispanic Republican lawmakers, who alerted the campaigns to reports that the senator's office and Univision insiders said the network aired an embarrassing story about Rubio's brother-in-law because he wouldn't sit down for an interview on the show "Al Punto," which has espoused a liberal line on the hot topic of immigration.

Univision personalities such as Jorge Ramos have advocated the Dream Act, which would allow certain children of undocumented immigrants to become legalized U.S. residents. Rubio has declined repeatedly to appear on "Al Punto," which Ramos hosts.

Univision has called the allegations "absurd," and said that the July story of the 24-year-old drug bust was reported fairly and accurately.

At the heart of Rubio's dispute with the network, though, is immigration, a politically sensitive topic for the Republican presidential contenders, and one Rubio had to contend with Wednesday as well.

He faced tough questions in particular about helping the children of certain illegal immigrants with college tuition. It's an area in which he's remained relatively quiet, and when he has spoken about it, he repeats what he said Wednesday in his interview with Garrett.

"Americans want a system that is true to our legacy of immigrants, but we also want a system that is true to our legacy of a nation of laws," he said. "And figuring out how to accomplish those two things is troublesome."

Overhauling immigration must be the domain of the federal government, Rubio said, and for Republicans to address the issue adequately, the GOP cannot be "the anti-illegal immigration party."

"We have to be the pro-legal immigration party," he said. "We have to be the party that advocates for a legal immigration system that's good for Americans and honors our tradition both as a nation of immigrants and as a nation of laws."

As for the Univision debate, Rubio said the GOP presidential candidates would readily find "alternative forums to communicate" with Spanish speakers.

"I don't think there'll be any shortage of televised debates," he said, adding jokingly, "including on 'Saturday Night Live.' "

But Rubio said Wednesday he that he wasn't interested in being on the vice-presidential debate podium. He said he didn't run for the Senate "as an opportunity to have a launching pad for some other job" and would turn down anyone who asked him to be the vice-presidential running mate.

"Yeah, I believe so," Rubio said. "I'm not going to be the vice presidential nominee. I'm not focused on that. I'm focused on my job right now. The answer is going to probably be no."

Then, grinning, he added this, saying he was "closing the door" on the question: "The answer is going to be no."

He may have been reading the polls. North Carolina's Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, said Wednesday that Rubio on the vice presidential ticket was no sure-fire way to deliver Florida for Republicans.

About 36 percent of voters say Rubio on the ticket would make them less likely to vote for the GOP. About 30 percent say Rubio on the ticket would enhance their chances of supporting the Republican candidate. And 34 percent told the pollsters it wouldn't make a difference to them either way.

(Marc Caputo of The Miami Herald contributed to this report from Miami.)

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