Byron York

"It's a big political risk in Republican primary land, but he will get a needed stature bump," says one veteran GOP operative who supports reform. "And doing the smart thing in the GOP primaries these days is almost always the wrong thing to do if you ever hope to be elected president, as President Romney can now tell you. So the politics are actually good in the longer game, which is the only game that can ever pay off."

That's useful advice, but only if immigration reform turns out to be the kind of issue that wins widespread approval. The problem is, recent polling has shown much public skepticism over the government's ability, or even inclination, to secure the border. And without that security, public approval of immigration reform goes down, down, down -- not just among Republicans, but among independents, too.

That means if Rubio sticks with the Gang of Eight, he might alienate millions of Americans who put security above any other immigration issue, and if he drops out, he might alienate everybody else.

In addition, as far as Republican primary voters are concerned, Rubio has taken a huge risk by hanging out with a bad crowd. McCain, fellow GOP Gang of Eight member Lindsey Graham (known to some critics as "Lindsey Grahamnesty") and Democrat Charles Schumer are not a popular bunch with the GOP base.

The bottom line is that if Rubio is playing a long game, as the GOP strategist suggests, he's running a significant risk of never making it through the Republican primaries. And if he's playing a shorter game, and insists on tough, GOP-pleasing measures, he risks blowing up the whole immigration project and looking like the villain.

And if he's playing no game at all -- if he is really doing it just because he believes it's the right thing to do -- there is still this: When it comes to running for president, voters don't much care about bills passed and votes taken. Barack Obama knew that instinctively. Will Rubio learn the same lesson from immigration reform?

Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner