Marco Rubio 2016: the risk of a lifetime

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida either becomes the Barack Obama of the Republican Party or he winds up with nothing. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Sen. Marco Rubio, (R) of Florida speaks in National Harbor, Md., in February. When Rubio, a rising star on Capitol Hill, launches his Republican presidential campaign Monday, he’ll have to answer a simple question. Why now?

Marco Rubio has long been a risk-taker.  

Before he was the junior senator from Florida, Mr. Rubio was the former speaker of the Florida House, thinking he was out of politics for good. Then a US Senate seat opened up, and Rubio saw his chance. Never mind that the sitting governor – Charlie Crist, then a Republican – wanted that seat.

Rubio vanquished Crist, making him the rookie phenom of the Republican Party. Perhaps, pundits suggested, Rubio was the GOP’s Barack Obama – a young, charismatic minority politician who could ride his political skill all the way to the White House.  

Five years later, Rubio is testing that proposition. On Tuesday evening, he launches his presidential campaign with an event at Miami’s Freedom Tower, the former entry point into the United States for Cuban refugees. And once again, the Cuban-American Rubio is going up against more senior, more experienced politicians – likely including his one-time mentor and fellow Floridian, former two-term Gov. Jeb Bush.

This time, nobody is counting Rubio out. Political handicapper Larry Sabato ranks him as one of only three top-tier GOP prospects, behind only Mr. Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.  

“He’s got a very, very good feel for the pulse of how much he can tap into that others can’t,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “He sees space where others don’t dare.”

But as in 2009, when Rubio plotted his improbable rise to the Senate – not only defeating a sitting governor, but also chasing him out of the Republican Party – Rubio is taking a risk. Like Obama in 2007, he’s not “waiting his turn.” And it could be difficult for him to raise the kind of big money he’ll need to compete for the GOP nomination in what is shaping up to be a field of a dozen or more serious candidates. Already, Bush is vacuuming up a lot of the big Florida money.

Rubio has much to lose. He is not running for reelection to the Senate so he can focus on his presidential campaign. By not deferring to Bush and waiting on the presidency, Rubio risks winding up with nothing, his image tarnished by reaching for the top too soon. Maybe he’s better off getting more seasoning first, some suggest, say with a run for governor of Florida to gain more executive experience.  

Rubio rejected that argument at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in January. He’s never thought, “I can I run for this to run for that,” he said. “I just deal with the opportunities as they emerge.”

The opportunity he sees now is the presidency. And maybe, as with Mr. Obama in 2008, this is his moment.  

The arguments are potentially powerful: He is Hispanic, the son of Cuban immigrants, and is fluent in Spanish. And he’s from Florida, the biggest battleground state and essential to the Republican Party’s chances of retaking the White House. He has potential to reach the crucial and fast-growing Hispanic electorate in a way that Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic favorite, can’t. Rubio also represents generational change in a way that neither Bush nor Mrs. Clinton, the two establishment-backed heavy-hitters of the field, can ever do.

But to get to the bulk of Hispanic voters, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the last two presidential elections, Rubio first needs to win the GOP nomination. His appeal to Republican primary voters requires getting them to understand his potential demographic appeal.

Rubio also faces a reality that Obama didn’t in his first presidential run: Rubio has a substantial record for a first-term senator. Unlike Obama, Rubio dove into Senate life by taking on major issues, particularly immigration and foreign policy. Rubio’s record on immigration could be problematic. He was the lead Republican sponsor of legislation to enact comprehensive immigration reform, then backed away from his own bill after a conservative backlash.

The episode tarnished Rubio’s star. It has put him more in line with his party’s views on immigration, which could ease his path to the nomination – but also could make it harder for him to attract Hispanic votes in the general election.  

Rubio has also become a leading Republican voice on foreign policy – a plus, particularly if that’s a top focus of the 2016 race.

But what about the argument that a Republican governor, past or present, would be better equipped for the presidency than another charismatic, minority senator with a compelling life story? Rubio rejected that premise at the Monitor breakfast.

“I believe that the central obligation of the federal government ... is providing for the national security,” said Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You can’t have middle-class prosperity if your national security is threatened.”

The next president, he added, needs to be someone with a grasp of America’s role in the world. Governors don’t deal with foreign affairs on a daily basis, as he has, Rubio said.

Rubio also has an advantage that many of the other announced and likely GOP candidates don’t have – the potential to appeal broadly across much of the party’s spectrum, especially with the establishment, the tea party, and social conservatives, and perhaps less so with libertarians.

Rubio caught fire in his 2010 Senate campaign with the backing of the then-new tea party, but unlike Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – another Republican presidential candidate of Cuban heritage – Rubio isn’t seen as a hard-liner. Once in the Senate, he was quickly embraced by the GOP establishment.

Whether Rubio can catch fire in parts of the country culturally far removed from Florida is a big question. In New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, Rubio scored a coup in February when he signed Jim Merrill to run his campaign there. Mr. Merrill ran former GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s operations in the state in both 2008 and 2012.

“That’s a good get,” says Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

But it’s only the beginning of a steep challenge: to gain traction as an alternative to both Bush and Governor Walker.

“He’s got to convince people he’s offering something that neither of the other two do,” says Mr. Galdieri. “I’m not sure how he does that.”

For now, polls show Rubio averaging just 5 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters, putting him well down in the pack. But it’s early, and he’s not well known there. So his upside potential is big.

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