Rubio's Moment -- and More Scrutiny -- Has Arrived

Rubio's Moment -- and More Scrutiny -- Has Arrived
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Marco Rubio’s days of flying under the radar are over.

The Florida senator now finds himself in the national spotlight thanks to a combination of a two standout debate performances, a subsequent rise in his poll numbers, and the flameouts and missteps of some of his key Republican presidential rivals.

While most campaigns yearn for this kind of attention and momentum, Rubio has been overtly cautious, keeping his head down to avoid peaking too soon or simply becoming the media’s flavor of the month — a status that implies a subsequent fall from favor. For a while his slow-and-steady approach drew criticism from could-be supporters. They wanted him more passionately engaged in the campaign, in part so they could gauge whether he is up to the rigors and scrutiny associated with a White House bid.

Now, whether he likes it or not, Rubio is considered a leading contender for the nomination. And the biggest names in politics have taken notice.

In many ways, Rubio is the candidate the GOP may need, but he may not be the one it wants. He’s a young, charismatic Latino who embodies the American Dream, is fluent in foreign policy, and hasn’t been around Washington long enough to reek of its repellant aspects. 

The problem for conservatives — and many independents, too — is that Rubio’s youth, inexperience and dearth of accomplishments are reminiscent of the current president’s 2008 resume. And though Rubio is steadily rising in the polls, and leading the pack of career politicians, primary voters still say they favor outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson at this juncture.

“Rubio would be the likely nominee right now if there wasn't concern about his relative youth and inexperience,” says Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican strategist and onetime gubernatorial candidate. “The only way for [voters] to get comfortable with that is to see him under fire.”

With Rubio now under the microscope, his rivals are aiming to drive home his liabilities. Trump, the GOP frontrunner, has called the freshman senator “a baby” and a “lightweight” who sweats on the big stage and is often absent from his day job. Referencing Rubio’s awkward swig of water during his 2013 response to the State of the Union address, he sent him a case of water with “Trump” on the bottles as a prank this week.

Trump has also joined movement conservatives who have attacked Rubio for the comprehensive immigration bill he sponsored in the Senate, calling him “Marco Amnesty Rubio,” which could drive away voters who side with Trump on immigration and detest talk of citizenship for the undocumented. Rubio has rescinded his support for the bill, including a pathway to a green card, thus drawing accusations of political expediency and inconsistency.

But perhaps the most interesting, and telling, criticism is coming from his mentor, Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor has explicitly drawn the Obama comparisons, saying Rubio does not have the leadership skills to fix the nation’s problems. Bush, who has been lagging in the polls and stumbling through the campaign, has also sought to spotlight Rubio’s inexperience, saying the younger Floridian has followed his lead.

This week, Bush sharpened his attacks, joining Trump in going after Rubio’s poor attendance record on votes. Rubio has defended his absences by arguing that constituent service and committee work matter more than time spent on the chamber floor. But a Politico report in July revealed the senator had missed several high-profile votes and hearings while on the campaign trail.

During a campaign stop in Iowa, Bush argued for docking lawmakers’ pay when they are absent. It’s a policy he has pushed for a while on the campaign trail, but it was clear this time he was pointing at his rival. “This idea that somehow voting isn't important -- I mean what are they supposed to do?” Bush said. “They should go to the committee hearings, they should vote.”

And in an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, Bush attempted to lump Rubio and Trump together as candidates incapable of changing Washington. "We are not going to fix a dysfunctional Washington, D.C., by electing a celebrity entertainer or D.C. senator who is either part of the problem or has proven incapable of fixing it," Bush wrote.

The comments are a marked turn from 2012 when Bush, in an interview with Charlie Rose, recommended Rubio to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, arguing that he had more experience than Barack Obama when he first ran for president.

In Iowa on Wednesday, Bush said he still believed Rubio had more experience than the current one-term senator in the White House, but added: “That’s “a low bar.”

Rubio has brushed off such criticism, pointing to his time as speaker of the Florida state House before entering the U.S. Senate and arguing that no amount of experience would have made Obama a better president.

He has also turned to his foreign policy experience in the upper chamber as a way to blunt critics’ attacks, and to demonstrate conservative credentials to voters concerned about his perceived shortcomings. After Vladimir Putin launched airstrikes in Syria last week, Rubio’s campaign touted the fact that the senator has predicted such a development in the previous debate, describing the Russian president’s goal of propping up Bashir al-Assad.

At the same time, the 44-year-old lawmaker has tried to capitalize on his youth. In many ways, he picked the fight with Bush: He has said he refuses to step aside for the next in line. And in announcing his campaign in April, Rubio called for a new generation of leadership that is more representative of the future than the past — a campaign theme that conveniently hits Hillary Clinton and Bush with one swipe.

While Rubio and Bush publicly insist they are still good friends who admire and respect each other, it was only a matter of time before the competition turned fierce. It has arguably escalated in recent days as Rubio has emerged in the eyes of some Republicans as a viable alternative to Bush, especially as the former governor has struggled to gain ground.

Strategists say Rubio should take Bush’s slights — and Trump’s too, for that matter — as a good sign. “That’s a compliment to Rubio and his organization: He's on the radar screen,” says Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina party chairman who was backing Rick Perry before he dropped out. Dawson, who campaigned for former president George W. Bush, said he has not yet decided whom he will now support, but has a preference for governors.

While Trump and Carson continue to lead in the polls, there is an opening for someone to emerge on the establishment-oriented, economic-conservative side, a lane occupied by Bush and Rubio, as well as John Kasich and Chris Christie.

“There’s a real battle going on for the consensus center-right candidate in the party, and among the folks who are vying for that, there's greater activity and more elbowing,” says Gross, the Iowa Republican. “Rubio has some momentum -- not enormous, but some — and Bush's interest is to make sure no competitor maintains that level of momentum when it comes time for the caucus.”

With Scott Walker now out of the race, the competition in that lane has become particularly competitive, and it has helped Rubio rise. It’s that development that gives Bush cause for concern.

“Rubio has got himself that seat at the table,” says one GOP strategist in Iowa. Voters interested in candidates in that mold “know Jeb is going to be there, he’s like the safety school, but there’s now this notion of ‘Let's see if this young guy Rubio is the real deal.’”

While Rubio’s campaign is still cautious about rising too quickly, the senator is starting to capitalize on his emergence into the spotlight.

Rubio allowed a Fox News reporter to follow him around for several days on the trail and back at home attending his sons’ football games. The senator’s wife, who has not been on the campaign circuit yet, recounted the story of her husband’s marriage proposal. He appeared on the “Today” show and “Fox and Friends” this week, and gave a speech in New York City about the “sharing economy.” He visited Iowa over the weekend, and hosted campaign events in New Hampshire on Wednesday. On Thursday, he begins a three-day swing throughout Nevada, a caucus state where he spent some of his childhood.

The campaign has not yet released its fundraising total for the past quarter, a number that will provide more insight into whether there is substance behind Rubio’s momentum.

He has tried to run a lean operation, without a large staff or a buzzing national headquarters. The campaign charges supporters for things like bumper stickers and yard signs as a way to raise money. Recently, he launched a peculiar “adopt a staffer” campaign to solicit campaign funds. The campaign has aimed to avoid the fates of Perry and Walker, who ran bigger operations than they could ultimately afford. At the same time, they know they have to ramp up their efforts in the early voting states.

Strategists say that while Rubio will now undergo increased scrutiny and pressure tests, his under-the-radar strategy had paid off as the caucuses and primaries come more into view.

While it is still early, “he has right now positioned himself in the sweet spot of where Republicans’ brains are in this race: Trump’s numbers have declined, and we're starting to see who is the person we want against Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican strategist. “We end up with people starting to make a decision based on quality of candidates in the general election, and that's where I think candidate quality really starts to matter.”

Wilson says Clinton should be concerned about a Rubio candidacy because she saw her husband beat an incumbent on a youth and optimism platform. She watched Obama do it too.

The current president seems to enjoy the comparisons Rubio’s opponents draw to him. At the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Obama mentioned Rubio as one senator who had reached across the aisle recently (on immigration reform).

“But I don’t know about 2016,” he said. “I mean, the guy has not even finished a single term in the Senate and he thinks he's ready to be president. Kids these days.”

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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