A few weeks after Senator Marco Rubio joined a bipartisan push for an immigration overhaul in 2013, he arrived alongside Senator Chuck Schumer at the executive dining room of News Corporation’s Manhattan headquarters for dinner. Their mission was to persuade Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the media empire, and Roger Ailes, the chairman and chief executive of its Fox News division, to keep the network’s on-air personalities from savaging the legislation and give it a fighting chance at survival.
Mr. Murdoch, an advocate of immigration reform, and Mr. Ailes, his top lieutenant and the most powerful man in conservative television, agreed at the Jan. 17, 2013, meeting to give the senators some breathing room.
But the media executives, highly attuned to the intensifying anger in the Republican grass roots, warned that the senators also needed to make their case toRush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio, who held enormous sway with the party’s largely anti-immigrant base.
So the senators supporting the legislation turned to Mr. Rubio, the Florida Republican, to reach out to Mr. Limbaugh.
The dinner at News Corporation headquarters — which has not been previously reported — and the subsequent outreach to Mr. Limbaugh illustrate the degree to which Mr. Rubio served as the chief envoy to the conservative media for the group supporting the legislation. The bill would have provided a pathway to American citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants along with measures to secure the borders and ensure that foreigners left the United States upon the expiration of their visas.
It is a history that Mr. Rubio is not eager to highlight as he takes on Donald J. Trump, his rival for the Republican presidential nomination, who has made his vow to crack down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign.
Those discussions of just a few years ago now seem of a distant era, when, after the re-election of President Obama, momentum was building to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.
The senators embarked on a tour of editorial boards and newsrooms, and Mr. Rubio was even featured as the “Republican savior” on the cover of Time magazine for his efforts to change immigration laws. He already was being mentioned as a 2016 presidential contender.
Now Mr. Trump has become the Republican leader in national polls by picking fights with Mr. Ailes and offending the Latino voters whom Mr. Rubio had hoped to bring into the Republican fold. And while Mr. Rubio ultimately abandoned the bipartisan legislation in the face of growing grass-roots backlash and the collapse of the conservative media truce, he, and to a certain degree Fox News, are still paying for that dinner.
Fox’s ratings remain strong, but its standing among Republican viewers, influenced by Mr. Trump’s offensive, has dropped to a three-year low, according to YouGov BrandIndex. And Mr. Rubio’s opponents, for whom Mr. Schumer, a Democrat from New York, has become the ultimate villain, continue to depict the Florida Republican as a duplicitous establishment insider.
“If you look at the ‘Gang of Eight,’ one individual on this stage broke his promise to the men and women who elected him and wrote the amnesty bill,” Senator Ted Cruz said of Mr. Rubio during Thursday’s Republican debate. And as Mr. Rubio defended himself, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, posted “MARCO ‘AMNESTY’ RUBIO” on Twitter.
The so-called Gang of Eight was four Democrats and four Republicans, including Mr. Rubio, who drafted an immigration bill in 2013. It passed the Senate but was stymied by conservative opposition in the House.
Details of the dinner, and a previous one in 2011, were provided to The New York Times by an attendee of one of the meetings and two people with knowledge of what was discussed at both get-togethers.
None of the attendees agreed to be identified for this article because the conversations were supposed to be confidential.
But on Monday, Mr. Limbaugh shed light on his interactions with the senators when he told a caller frustrated with his criticism of Mr. Rubio that the immigration position the senator had advocated “comes right out of the Gang of Eight bill.”
Mr. Limbaugh added, “I’ve had it explained to me by no less than Senator Schumer.”
Mr. Schumer declined to comment for this article. But before Mr. Obama’s re-election and soon afterward, he could hardly stop talking with conservative senators and media power brokers about the chance to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.
As early as March 9, 2011, Mr. Schumer joined Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and another eventual member of the Gang of Eight, at the Palm restaurant in Manhattan, where they made their case to Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Ailes and Mr. Limbaugh in a private room. The senators argued how damaging the word “amnesty” was to their efforts, and walked Mr. Limbaugh through their vision for an immigration overhaul.
The senators were especially eager to try to neutralize conservative media, which proved lethal to a big push for immigration changes in 2007. A study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that conservative news shows had devoted about a quarter of their time to immigration.
In late 2012, after Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, lost the presidential election in part because of his dismal performance with Latino voters, Mr. Rubio joined the fight. On one Sunday alone in April 2013, he made an appearance on seven talk shows to advocate the immigration overhaul, including on “Fox News Sunday.”
Mr. Rubio also reached out to other conservative power brokers, including the radio hosts Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, telling them that the legislation did not amount to amnesty. The Fox anchors Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly became more supportive.
At the time, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Rubio’s advisers were monitoring to the minute how much time the hosts devoted to immigration, and that “they are heartened that the volume is much diminished.”
Mr. Rubio publicly and privately worked to assuage the fears of Mr. Limbaugh, who on air called him a “thoroughbred conservative” and assured one wary listener that “Marco Rubio is not out to hurt this country or change it the way the liberals are.”
On Jan. 29, 2013, the same day Mr. Obama highlighted immigration in Las Vegas, Mr. Limbaugh had Mr. Rubio on as a guest to talk about immigration and called him “admirable and noteworthy” during a warm conversation about the bipartisan immigration plan.
“I know for you border security is the first and last — if that doesn’t happen, none of the rest does, right?” Mr. Limbaugh lobbed.
“Well, not just that,” swung Mr. Rubio. “That alone is not enough.”
The conversation concluded with Mr. Rubio saying: “Thank you for the opportunity, Rush. I appreciate it.”
“You bet,” Mr. Limbaugh said.