On Day Two of the first government shutdown in 17 years, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida held a press conference on flood-insurance reform. He left early, passing up the chance to toss out headline-making quotes on the budget standoff.
On Day Three, he endorsed a little-known Pasco County Republican running for the Florida House.
His last national media appearance was eight days ago.
Meanwhile, his Republican colleague and possible presidential rival in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is the man of the hour. He grabbed the national spotlight with a 21-hour stand on the Senate floor last week and hasn't let go. The media blitz seems to be paying off: Cruz's poll numbers rose as he drove his party toward the shutdown. Meanwhile, Rubio's star has fallen after passing a bipartisan immigration-reform bill in June, even though he spent much of the last couple months rallying support for defunding the health care law in the federal budget.
"Ted Cruz is new, and he's a rock star," said Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express. "I just think health care is a much bigger issue for most Americans than immigration."
Two conservative Republican senators, two potential paths to the White House. Cruz, who during nine months in office has made at least a half-dozen trips to early-primary states, is riding the wave. Rubio, whose last visit to an early-voting state was Iowa in November, is playing the long game. His allies dismiss the early polling and argue that letting Cruz be the poster boy for the government shutdown might not be such a bad idea.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican who partnered with Rubio on immigration reform, said Thursday: "You're looking at a snapshot of a couple of days of something. I always felt that Sen. Rubio will benefit from his serious work on a substantive issue, and I still think he will."
Flake added, "Winning the presidency is about winning a general, not just a primary."
Asked why he hasn't been more outspoken this week, Rubio said he's "more than happy to share his views" with House Republicans that the health care law will damage the economy and Democrats are to blame for the budget impasse. Rubio said he supports the effort by House Republicans to pass short-term funding for veterans, the National Park Service, and the D.C. government.
Rubio joined Cruz during his marathon speech on the Senate floor to show his support.
"People know where I stand on the issue," Rubio said Thursday after leaving a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran's nuclear program. "There's not legislative action, there isn't anything happening, there's nothing to speak out on."
That hasn't stopped other prominent conservative Republicans like Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky from holding court with reporters day after day. Paul hosted a "bipartisan coffee" Thursday on the steps of the Senate that attracted more than a couple dozen reporters and only a handful of elected officials.
"The more you pick a fight with Washington, the better you look out in the country," said Republican consultant David Kochel, who ran Mitt Romney's campaign in the 2012 Iowa caucus. "Sen. Cruz has got a hot hand right now with a certain part of the grassroots that is really charged up, but we still have to wait for this to play out. I think in the end Sen. Rubio will get credit from the part of the party that's more interested in making sure things work than these symbolic protests."
American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, who's known Rubio for more than a decade, said his style is to be more collegial, while Cruz seems to relish confrontations with fellow Republicans worried about the negative fallout from the shutdown. Rubio's relationships with other senators could be valuable if he decides to run for national office.
"You will never see Rubio taking on his colleagues head on," Cardenas said. "That's not a place of comfort for him."
Henry Barbour, a Mississippi committeeman who helped lead a Republican National Committee post-mortem of the 2012 election, said no one should count Rubio out just because he's keeping a lower profile these days. The fate of his immigration bill rests in the House, which is resistant to a sweeping approach that would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. Rubio spent months negotiating the fine print and pitching the bill.
"We're in the era of presidential politics by cable news," Barbour said. "Rubio is still going to have a bite at the apple if he runs because he's a serious guy. There are people who make noise and get attention but if the substance isn't there, they're going to fade."
The latest poll from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Cruz climbing eight percentage points since July to the top of the 2016 Republican primary heap. He received 20 percent support, compared to Rubio with only 10 percent. A recent Quinnipiac University poll of the potential 2016 field showed Rubio down seven percentage points from April to 12 percent. Cruz wasn't even included in the April survey; now he's at 10 percent.
"Cruz gets more attention and perhaps a higher reward because he was so visible for so long during that speech on the floor," said Keith Appell, who advises conservative Republicans. "I knew when I was watching that speech that he would shoot right to the top of the polls. And lo behold he has. Does it argue for being more visible? Yes."
This article appears in the October 4, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.