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Why are people picking on Marco Rubio's boat?

As the bid for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination revs up so has the cycle of scrutiny.

Dave Kaup/Reuters
US Republican presidential candidate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a "Roast & Ride" campaign event sponsored by Iowa Senator Joni Ernst (R) of Iowa at the Central Iowa Expo in Boone, Iowa June 6.

What does it take to make a boat a “luxury speedboat”?

Believe it or not that’s question that’s been roiling bored politicos on social media for the last 24 hours.

The context: The New York Times has run several pieces on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and his personal background and finances. The first dealt with his and his wife Jeanette Rubio’s penchant for driving fast enough to accumulate “numerous infractions” for speeding and careless driving. The second, much lengthier story detailed Senator Rubio’s history of money struggles, including student debts and ill-considered home equity loans.

The contention: in the second piece writers Steve Eder and Michael Barbaro noted that Rubio splurged on an $80,000 “luxury speedboat” after receiving an $800,000 book advance in 2012. Rubio supporters immediately leapt to his defense, noting that the boat in question looked nothing like a yacht, and was in fact a family-oriented fishing boat of a type common in South Florida, where Rubio lives.

The Gray Lady (That’s the Times) is being elitist, in this view, attacking Rubio for his boat, leased Audi, and 2,700 square foot home while ignoring John Kerry’s actual yacht and Hillary Clinton’s lucrative speechifying. Hitting Rubio for traffic tickets was bad enough, according to conservatives. Now the liberal elitists are after him for his typical family toys.

“One man’s luxury is another man’s ... fishing boat,” writes Ed Morrissey at the right-leaning Hot Air.

OK, we’ll agree the initial traffic ticket story was over the top. It was short though, while the money piece was long and complex. And “luxury speedboat”? Every boat is a luxury, in a way, unless you’re an actual lobsterman or something. There’s a reason they’re called “holes in the water you throw money into.”

But that’s not the point. The boat is a distraction. As veteran National Journal reporter Ron Fournier notes, Rubio’s handling of money is fair game, and the NYT story has some serious allegations. It asserts that he has “intermingled personal and political money.” For instance, in the past he used a state Republican Party credit card to pay for paving at his home.

Given that, to focus on the boat “is the political equivalent of shouting, ‘ignore the burning forest, check out this tree!’” writes Mr. Fournier.

And the bottom line is that Rubio is now experiencing the type of journalistic scrutiny that all White House hopefuls face when their prospects rise. And Rubio’s prospects are rising, as he’s in the first tier of Republican contenders with Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The same cycle of vetting happened over and over in the 2012 race, according to political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. In their book on the election, “The Gamble,” they note that series of fresh GOP faces were discovered by voters and rose quickly to the top of the polling heap. These included Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich.

Then the media, attracted by the rise of these candidates, began to look more closely into their background. As negative aspects of their careers were examined their poll numbers began to sink.

This scrutiny was driven by “opposing candidates’ need to stop the surging candidate from solidifying his or her lead and journalistic norms about vetting candidates,” wrote Mr. Sides and Ms. Vavreck in their book.

Rubio might well withstand this probing better than Mr.Cain, et al., did the last time around. But he’s far from the first rising party star to have the narrow, intense spotlight of the press turned upon him.

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