In Packed GOP Presidential Field, Is There Room for Rubio?

In Packed GOP Presidential Field, Is There Room for Rubio?
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Marco Rubio is making moves.

He’s traveling around the country and raising money. (He skipped the Republican congressional retreat this week in Pennsylvania for a fundraiser in Alabama.) He has a political action committee and his own political team. He has a new book out—titled “American Dreams,” no less—which put him in New York City this week and will likely take him to early voting states soon.

But whether it’s all part of a run-up to a 2016 presidential bid, re-election, or something else won’t be publicly known for another few weeks, the freshman senator from Florida has said.

The early maneuverings of Jeb Bush, a political mentor and friend to Rubio, pushed the Republican presidential primary into high gear, adding pressure for potential candidates to make a decision before all the money, talent and status get taken.

Contenders have to stake their claim early on the crowded stage. There are several roles to be played in the GOP primary—the conservative favorite, the centrist, the candidate perceived as most electable, the outsiderbut many of them are already cast, with understudies. And with a big-name Floridian already moving toward a run—a seasoned governor with an extensive financial and political network and the presidency in his blood—is there room for Rubio?

The young Republican Latino with a gift for oration is finding his window, positioning himself as the 21st century candidate, a fresh face that comes with ideas—ideas about economic mobility, foreign policy, and yes, even immigration.

“The future is now. It’s here. It has arrived. And we need new ideas and new thinking, and quite frankly a new generation of leadership," he told CBS News.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, when asked who in the GOP was presenting “21st century ideas,” Rubio joked, “Other than me? No one yet. That’s the challenge before us. That’s what the campaign will be about.” 

Florida-based Republican strategist Ana Navarro says “of course” there is room for Rubio in this year’s primary. “Marco has campaign experience. He represents one of the most diverse purple states in the country. He is the most articulate speaker in American politics today,” she told RCP.

Indeed, Rubio, 43, would stand out in a 2016 field that, as of now, looks like a 1990s-era corporate boardroom. But the same qualities that make him seem refreshing could also be his undoing. One of the many criticisms Republicans lodge against Barack Obama, a freshman senator with no executive experience, is that his inexperience shows. Republicans often pine for governors, or former governors. Washington has an unsavory smell to it.

“The GOP hasn’t been wild about the first-term senator we have in the White House,” says Mac Stipanovich, a Florida Republican attorney who advised Jeb Bush’s gubernatorial run. “When you look at executive experience, governors are much more attractive, having run something more than a committee staff.”

Rubio isn’t taking on any new or innovative roles in the Senate to suggest he would stay. He will chair the Foreign Policy subcommittee on the western hemisphere, where he will have influence on Cuba policy.

Of course, the freshman argument doesn’t just apply to Rubio. Both Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky are in their first terms in the Senate. (Cruz is only a year older than Rubio. Paul and Chris Christie are 52. By contrast, Jeb Bush is 61 and Mitt Romney is 67.) But both Cruz and Paul have an established mode of operation, the latter a conservative firebrand and the other a libertarian.

Rubio came up in the tea party wave of 2010 but isn’t considered a tea party senator, certainly not in the way Cruz identifies himself and the way conservatives identify with Cruz. The Florida senator’s co-signing of the upper chamber’s comprehensive immigration bill left a sour taste in the mouths of many on the right.

Rubio is in danger of falling between the cracks, says Stipanovich, a Bush supporter. “He’s got one foot in the right side of the party, but isn’t as appealing to that minority as Cruz or Huckabee or whoever, and one foot in with the mainstream portion of the party, but isn’t of the same timber in that regard as Jeb or Christie or Romney,” he said. “He may be a little of both and not enough of either.”

In many ways, that dynamic can create an opening for people like Rubio who can navigate both worlds. The problem is that others, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, feel they can strike that balance too.

Rubio is certainly sharpening a pitch. Republican voters, he told Breitbart this week, “want someone who understands what the threats are and how to fix it, and I think that’s going to matter more at this point than how many times you ran before or what your last name is or how well known you are.” He continued: “I think this is going to be an ideas primary.”

Next week, Rubio will meet with donors and supporters in Miami. Both he and Bush are skipping the GOP presidential cattle call in Iowa next Friday. The following week, Rubio is attending fundraisers in California. The book tour will then ramp up and take him all over the country, but also allow him to hit the early states. His political committee allows him to raise money for either a Senate or presidential bid.

But soon, donors will want to know which fund they are contributing to. Republican Party operatives will also want to know whether they need to look for a U.S. Senate recruit in the big presidential swing state of Florida. Rubio can’t run for both, according to state law. And he has said he would pursue one or the other. 

Rubio has also insisted that Bush’s entrance into the race would not impede his own. And while Rubio would have to decide soon whether to enter the race in order to raise the money and support needed, he is already a step or two ahead of Bush in terms of a political committee and staff.

“Potential candidates should all ask themselves the same questions: Do I want to run, and should I run. If answer is yes, they have to go out there and earn it on their own,” says Navarro. “There are no entitlement rights to the presidency. Jeb and Marco are big boys and fully understand this."

By the time Rubio makes public his decision about 2016, Bush might have had some kind of an impact or made some kind of stride to suggest the contest isn’t big enough for two Floridians. There are questions about how far Rubio could go without a monopoly on a deep geographical base.

Others have suggested that Rubio wait and take the longer approach: run for re-election in 2016 and aim for a gubernatorial bid in 2018, giving him more experience and time to make a stronger presidential run. But winning the governorship is no sure bet, especially with other Floridians such as Attorney General Pam Bondi and State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam waiting in the wings.

For now, Rubio has said his decision comes down to whether the U.S. Senate or a presidential campaign is the best place for him at this point in his career. “If he decided that the Senate was the best place to advance his policy ideas, then he would consider staying,” said his former chief of staff, Cesar Conda, in an email. “It's hard for senators to accomplish anything in the Senate if they are running full time for president. Just look at Senator Obama as an example.”

But Rubio is also “a very ardent student of history,” says one Florida Republican strategist who knows him. Neither John F. Kennedy nor Barack Obama hung around long in the Senate. “Timing is such a huge part of entering in politics,” the strategist said, noting that Rubio has proven, by his 2010 race, he isn’t one to wait around for his time.

The last time he didn’t wait, he was successful. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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