Marco Rubio, Getting Lost in the GOP Crowd?
As Marco Rubio sat down Sunday to answer questions for an audience of 500 Republican donors in the powerful Koch network, he was competing for attention in more ways than one. Rubio had drawn the lunchtime slot, and he spoke as attendees filtered through a buffet line; not surprisingly, plates clattered in the sunny courtyard of the St. Regis property in Dana Point, Calif.
The event was hosted by Freedom Partners, one group in a political web spun by the billionaires Charles and David Koch. Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker accepted invitations to speak along with Rubio, hoping to make inroads with the influential group and its supporters.
The buffet was one thing, but Rubio needed to rise above the clamor of the other candidates, too. Offstage, he met privately throughout the day with donors. That evening, he stayed for dinner, seated at Charles Koch’s table.
Still, there was a sense among some attendees that Rubio came up short.
"Rubio came in and did what he needed to do,” said one person who attended the summit. “He’s probably in the top three, but there are a lot of people who think this just isn't his time quite yet."
Perhaps more than any other GOP presidential candidate, the charismatic freshman senator from Florida was the focus of early expectations and anticipation among Republicans: The party’s telegenic rising star with a compelling personal narrative would bring a fresh face to the election, they said, ushering in a new model of GOP candidate to bend demographic and ideological boundaries.
Rubio’s personal investment in the race raised the stakes, as he would be giving up his Senate seat for a shot at the presidency. But, four months into his campaign, and as the stage is set for the first debate, the candidate that many observers imagined has not yet come to life. Instead of standing out in the 17-person field, Rubio risks getting lost in it.
In public polling, he is sandwiched squarely between the frontrunners and the bottom tier. He ranks eighth in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, and seventh in South Carolina. In his home state of Florida, Rubio trails Bush, a former governor, by more than six points on average — although Bush has not held office there for nearly a decade.
"Horse race polls are always all over the place this early in the race, and disciplined campaigns ignore them,” said one Rubio aide. “What matters to us is the fundamentals. Do people like what they see? Do they have a favorable opinion of him? Because if they like him now, then we have a chance to win their support when it actually matters in six months.”
It’s true that Rubio’s vital signs are good in this regard. His favorability in most polls is solidly positive, and he rates as many voters’ second choice. After the summer of Donald Trump has waned, Rubio’s allies contend, their candidate will be in as strong a position as any Republican to wrest back the spotlight and shake things up.
And, Rubio’s team points out, his campaign has not yet spent money on television advertising, as others like Chris Christie and John Kasich have.
"When Marco's on TV, his numbers will move in a hurry," Rubio’s spokesman Alex Conant told the Orlando Sentinel. Still, there has been outside spending on Rubio’s behalf: A nonprofit group supporting him recently announced an ad buy of $3.3 million promoting his opposition to the Obama administration’s deal with Iran.
But it’s not yet clear who is watching. Rubio has not made a big splash with any one constituency within the Republican Party, and he has not made substantial inroads in any one key state — leaving some Republicans to wonder whether Rubio could end up as a man without a country.
“He’s stuck between two lanes with his blinker on,” said one party strategist with ties to a competing campaign.
Ideologically, Rubio’s allies contend he maintains broad appeal among conservative and moderate Republicans alike. But some of his recent policy maneuvers appear to have positioned him more within the establishment segment of the GOP — a space already crowded with Bush, Kasich, and Christie.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, Rubio did not call for a constitutional amendment to define marriage, as did many candidates who are courting conservatives. On immigration reform, he said recently that he would be open to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a position that is untenable with many conservative voters.
“I don’t think they’ve come to grips yet with the fact that this has pushed them into the establishment lane,” said a Republican operative working for a competing campaign. “He’s still trying to be all things to all people.”
It is also unclear what states Rubio’s team sees as his natural turf. Ideologically, one might point to New Hampshire, which tends to pick more moderate candidates. Rubio’s senior campaign staff has strong South Carolina ties, which might give him a leg up there. And he spent part of his childhood in Nevada.
As of now, Rubio finds himself without strong polling or a robust organization on the ground in any of these states.
The campaign is moving to correct that. Next week, Rubio will open offices in New Hampshire and Iowa. The timing puts him behind many of his challengers, however: Walker opened his Iowa office in February; Trump opened a campaign office in New Hampshire in June.
While Walker has begun crisscrossing the Hawkeye State in a branded Winnebago, Rubio is not yet holding many of his own campaign events, instead dropping in to headline independent meetings. On a recent Iowa swing, he spoke at a conservative club meeting in Urbandale, without any of his own organizers there to mine information from potential supporters.
“There were people who specifically showed up for Rubio, and there was no mechanism for engaging or capturing who those people were,” said one Republican who attended.
Just months earlier, in April, Rubio had set the expectations sky high for his Iowa campaign.
“We are going to be here often,” he told a crowd assembled in assembled in one supporter’s living room. “We want to win the caucuses in this state.”
It was a heady promise, one that now seems premature. One Iowa Republican who attended the event recently reflected: “He probably shouldn’t have said that.”