It’s surely a stretch to brand Marco Rubio “The Republican Savior,” as TIME does in its latest cover story. Still, the article offers some interesting insights, including Rubio’s thoughts about the potential impact of immigration reforms.

Rubio is careful not to oversell immigration reform’s potential to revive the GOP brand: “If anyone is under the illusion that suddenly our percentage of Hispanic voters will double, let me dissuade them of that right now.” But he says many Hispanic Americans are forming their political identity in an era of Big Government and won’t even consider Republican arguments against it. “They’ve bought into the lie the left is putting out there that because we want to enforce immigration laws, we’re not welcoming,” he says. “It’s not true. It’s not fair. But it is what it is.” It’s no accident that Cubans, who enjoy more lenient rules than other immigrants, are more receptive to the GOP—or that non-Cuban Hispanics don’t always consider a Cuban-American politician one of them.

Now he wants to reform the system for all immigrants, and his impeccably nuanced positions have become the core of the Senate plan. He agrees that there is no way to round up and deport 11 million people living in the shadows, but he worries that excessive generosity could end up attracting 11 million more. So he backs a path to citizenship—the current situation, he says, amounts to “de facto amnesty”—but only if the borders are secure and an employment-verification system is in place first, and then only if it isn’t quicker or easier than the path for applicants who play by the rules. And while he is willing to grant probationary legal status to undocumented immigrants who register and pay fines, he insists they go to the back of the line for green cards and refuses to allow them to collect food stamps or other federal benefits.

Obama has announced similar principles, but Rubio has still blasted him for soft-pedaling the need to step up enforcement, among other issues. Some of this is Beltway theater; reform could become toxic for Republicans if it’s perceived as Obama-friendly. But there also will be very real differences over details involving guest farmworkers, high-skilled immigrants, same-sex couples and the path to citizenship itself. It’s a lot easier to agree that wait times should be reasonable or that the border should be secure than to draft legislation determining what those things mean. This shrewd political operator will have to decide how far he’s willing to bend to get a deal done with Obama or whether he’s content just to get credit for trying.

For those who believe the Florida senator has gone soft on immigration, TIME adds a sidebar profiling Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state spearheading some of the nation’s toughest immigration enforcement measures.