The freshman senator from Florida had joined four veteran colleagues to unveil a proposal for the first major overhaul of immigration law in a quarter-century. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced “my friend, Senator [Marco] Rubio, who obviously is a new but incredibly important voice in this whole issue of immigration reform.”
Two weeks earlier, Rubio had laid out a similar set of principles in an exclusive interview with The Wall Street Journal under the headline, “Marco Rubio: Riding to the Immigration Rescue.” The article came as a surprise to McCain and other members of the bipartisan group of senators who had been sketching out an immigration plan with and without Rubio for weeks. The blueprint was inspired by legislation that McCain first spearheaded in 2005.
The dig was subtle, but Rubio didn’t let it go. “I am clearly new to this issue in terms of the Senate. I am not new in terms of my life,” noted the Cuban-American senator from West Miami. “I live surrounded by immigrants. My neighbors are immigrants. My family is immigrants. Married into a family of immigrants.”
The understated exchange between the two Republican lawmakers in late January reflects how Rubio has used his compelling biography to cast himself in a starring role in the immigration debate and, beyond that, the future of the GOP.
No matter that he’s only punched up the old script, swung back and forth on immigration policy, and never shepherded major legislation through Congress. What Rubio brings is the star power, adoring fan base, and command of the national media unmatched these days by anyone in Washington outside of the Oval Office. It’s the same aggressive product placement that has made the 41-year-old a top-tier presidential contender just two years after his swearing-in.
Rubio is the GOP’s Barack Obama, minus the intellectual heft intimated by two Ivy League degrees and a law-school faculty post. A Generation X-er with a name that sounds like change. The author of an American Dream-laced memoir that, audiences are frequently reminded, helped pay off his student loans. A former state lawmaker and a Senate short-timer with a thin binder of achievements but perhaps blessed with the greatest rhetorical gifts in politics today. “[Rubio] is the best communicator since Ronald Reagan,” Republican brass Karl Rove gushed recently on Fox News.
Like Obama, Rubio is increasingly viewed by his party as a transcendent figure who can build a winning coalition among a younger and increasingly diverse electorate—and, by the way, deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union in both English and Spanish. The buy-in speaks to Rubio’s uncommon knack for politics and the desperation of a party dependent on a shrinking white vote. “Rubio has exactly what Obama had—a party that has lost two successive presidential elections and is searching for a savior in the face of serious demographic challenges,” says Faith and Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed, a leading Christian conservative. “Whether Marco is the same elixir for the GOP is unknowable today.”
Time magazine rendered a decision last week, declaring Rubio “The Republican Savior” in a cover story that capped off a geyser of overwhelmingly positive media coverage. But as the man seemingly charged with saving the Republican Party from itself, Rubio has offered startling little in terms of outlining bold policy ideas or crafting a modern version of conservatism. His talent, instead, seems to lie in sales, in an ability to pull hoary tropes such as “American Exceptionalism” off the shelf and make them sound new.
Whether it’s the same old package of immigration reforms or the same old party platform, Rubio is the best gift-wrapper in the Republican Party. “We don’t need to raise taxes. We need to create more taxpayers,” he often says. Or, “The way to turn our economy around is not by making rich people poorer; it’s by making poor people richer.” Peel back the wordplay and it’s the timeworn antitax pledge Republicans have been pushing since the mid-1980s. While Obama’s victory has provoked hand-wringing about whether the GOP should abandon less popular positions and move toward the center, it’s possible that all the party needs is a more effective and charismatic vessel for those ideas, a better pitchman.
Like failed presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, Rubio is an anti-gay-marriage, climate-change-denying, fiscal-cliff-jumping military hawk. Yet, so far, he has deflected Democratic attacks that seek to tar him as another Republican extremist with a penchant for sounding totally reasonable and a national marketing campaign that promotes his softer, younger, hipper side. Some of the greatest hits have included a New York Times feature about his lifelong love for the Miami Dolphins; a GQ interview in which he discusses the nuances of East and West Coast rap; a wide-ranging Twitter feed that touches on politics, religion, family, and pop culture (“Cheering 4 & inspired by Lazaro Arbos from Naples, FL who made it to Hollywood on @AmericanIdol last night”); and, most recently, the Time story that leads off with his elderly mother in West Miami. She calls him “Tony.”
In one recent example of the symbiotic relationship between Rubio and the accommodating media, Politico’s Mike Allen led his well-read tip sheet on Feb. 5 with this item: “FIRST LOOK—SEN. MARCO RUBIO releases his Spotify track list, ‘What I’m Listening To.’ ” In an interview with BuzzFeed that night in front of a live audience, Rubio spent more time detailing his catalog from the digital-music service (reflecting a diverse taste for rap, indie rock, pop, and Christian rock) than defending his antiscience stance on climate change. His press secretary posted a lighthearted National Journal send-up titled “Five Ways Marco Rubio Is Not Your Grandfather’s Republican” on Twitter as a must-read for “anyone writing bio/profile pieces of @MarcoRubio.”
Now Rubio faces the same challenge that’s loomed over Obama since his groundbreaking 2008 campaign: Can he live up to the hype? Rubio wouldn’t be the first rising star to flame out—the 2012 GOP primary season featured a half-dozen front-runners—but the senator from Florida would have a very long way to fall. He seems to realize that.
“This stuff is all fleeting; it comes and goes,” Rubio said in a recent speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group. “You’re a senator today; you won’t be tomorrow. You’re in office today; you lose your next election.… The more you are given, the more that is expected of you.”
Hailed repeatedly by both the Left and the Right for his “courage” in taking up immigration reform, Rubio has little choice because of his status and ambitions. How could the most prominent Hispanic Republican in Congress angle for the presidency but sit out a nationwide debate that looms over his own community and will help determine his party’s survival? After seven of 10 Hispanics rejected Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in November, even Fox News ultraconservative pundit Sean Hannity embraced a pathway to citizenship—weeks before Rubio did. “The train was leaving the station, and he was forced to get on it,” said one GOP member of Congress who declined to speak on the record because he works with Rubio.
Although the senator had advocated legal status for young immigrants in college or the military, he didn’t come out in favor of a sweeping citizenship plan until The Wall Street Journal interview last month. Rubio collaborated last year with former GOP Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona on a bill to grant visas to children brought to this country illegally, but after Obama beat them to the punch with an executive order in June, Rubio declined to even cosponsor the Republican bill.
“There are huge risks and benefits to Rubio putting his name on immigration reform. He carries the good, the bad, the ugly,” said GOP consultant Ana Navarro, who advised McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign on Hispanic outreach. “But if you don’t put your name on it, people wonder why you’re not leading.”
Rubio will likely have served in Congress four years before launching a presidential campaign, two years longer than Obama did, increasing the pressure on him to have something to show for his time on Capitol Hill. In a sign that congressional gridlock hamstrings Rubio as much as his colleagues, only four of his 74 sponsored measures have cleared the Senate: a resolution opposing international regulation of the Internet; a resolution congratulating the NBA champion Miami Heat; and resolutions designating September 2011 and September 2012 as National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month. Size that up against the major policy reforms enacted by other Republicans weighing presidential bids, including governors and more-seasoned members of Congress such as House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.
Rubio is addressing the gravitas gap by making overseas trips as a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, beefing up his Hill staff, and, most recently, partnering with experienced colleagues to revamp immigration laws. “If he becomes a presidential candidate, he will be able to claim he took a constructive role on an important national issue,” said Republican consultant Mark Salter, a longtime McCain confidant who has also advised Rubio. “But, remember, Barack Obama was elected without a single accomplishment in the U.S. besides running for president. It’s obviously not mandatory.”
ONE MUST YIELD
“Can’t we all agree it’s way, way too early for 2016?” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said on Twitter on Jan. 6. Less than two weeks later, South Carolina strategist Terry Sullivan, who ran Romney’s 2012 campaign in his state, began working for Rubio’s political action committee, Reclaim America, full time. So did Dorinda Moss, a top-drawer party fundraiser.
In fact, Rubio has long been testing the waters. Two days after the November election, he was announced as the headliner at a birthday party for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a coveted endorsement in the nation’s first nominating contest. “I wouldn’t have invited him to the party if I didn’t hope that he would look at [running for president] in the future,” Branstad said. Rubio’s political action committee aims “to elect conservatives to the United States Senate,” but only $73,000 of the $1.7 million spent since July 2011 went to candidates and committees. The biggest chunk, $525,000, went to consultants, revealing a political apparatus more focused on image-making than supporting fellow conservatives.
“He’s definitely doing all the right things to build a national profile and make himself a formidable force in 2016,” said Washington lobbyist Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. “If Hillary [Rodham Clinton] doesn’t run, it will be a boring white guy against the sharp, young Hispanic from the state of Florida.”
But it may not be that simple. Another Florida politician stands between Rubio and a front-running presidential campaign: his longtime mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The torch was once passed in fall 2005, when Rubio was anointed the incoming speaker of the Florida House, and Bush, then governor, presented him with a gold sword named for “Chang,” a mythical Chinese warrior. When Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., unexpectedly announced he would retire early in 2010, Bush passed up the opportunity to run, and Rubio seized it. He donned the mantle of a tea-party-infused insurgent and brought down the establishment Republican candidate, Charlie Crist. Much like today, that moment offered a perfect union of Rubio’s biography, oratorical strength, and political opportunity.
Now, Rubio is positioning himself for another promotion while Bush is still weighing a return to politics. Republicans who know both men insist they would never run for the White House against each other. “Here’s how it would work,” said American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “Jeb Bush clearly wants some time to think this over. I do believe Marco would defer to Jeb. But as Marco gets better known nationally, there’s going to come a time when [a presidential campaign] will become a foregone conclusion. For Marco to be deferential, my sense is that Jeb is going to have to make up his mind sooner rather than later.”
Although he’s been out of office for six years, Bush keeps in close contact with former staffers and political advisers. He could tap a vast fundraising network cultivated during three statewide races in Florida, his brother’s presidential and statewide races in Texas, and his father’s national campaigns since 1979. Jeb Bush raised most of his money the old-fashioned way, with receptions for big donors bearing checks from their clients and friends, while Rubio came of age during the tea-party movement and the advent of online, grassroots fundraising.
“Marco would probably be the most successful recipient of retail dollars in a potential Republican field of presidential candidates,” Cardenas said. “He’s got great retail appeal. He’ll be the most targeted candidate by the liberal media, and that will ensure him a bountiful amount of dollars.”
There’s a big overlap between Bush and Rubio supporters, but as some of them point out, they were Bush supporters first. They also emphasize the two-term governor’s willingness to take on “big, hairy, audacious goals,” as Bush called them, from sweeping education reform, to bans on affirmative action in state contracts and university admissions, to an Everglades cleanup deal with the federal government. Rubio operates more cautiously and rarely strays from his party’s conservative orthodoxy. “Marco is learning. He’s maturing,” said Mel Sembler, a former national finance chairman and a friend of the Bush family, who has also raised money for Rubio. “Jeb would certainly be the one if it comes down to the two of them, but I don’t think it will come to that.”
During the 2012 Republican presidential primary battle, Bush sided with Texas Gov. Rick Perry when rivals attacked him for offering in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. “I think that is a fair policy,” Bush told NJ in September 2011. As the issue dogged Perry’s candidacy, Rubio withdrew his previous support for such tuition breaks.
“If you are going to be a leader, you have to take risks like Jeb did,” Sembler said. “Immigration reform is a very important step for Rubio to take.”
Bush has found a lucrative and influential niche in the private sector. He heads his own consulting firm and a think tank called the Foundation for Excellence in Education, serves as a senior adviser to Barclays Capital, gives paid speeches, and sits on several corporate boards. And then there’s his family. His oldest son, George P. Bush, is running for statewide office in Texas. He has a baby granddaughter in Miami. Perhaps most important, his wife, Columba, disdains the public spotlight. “She wants to be Mrs. Bush, not first lady,” said one Bush confidant.
So long as his status as party statesman, leader of an educational think tank, and author of a forthcoming book on immigration reform allow Bush to influence public policy, he may be inclined to spare himself and his family a risky national campaign. He is, after all, a Bush—saddled with the mixed presidential legacies of his brother and his father. His immigration and education policies may be forward-thinking, but his surname sounds like the past.
“A lot of tea partiers consider him part of the establishment, another Bush, and they don’t want to go that route,” said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the Florida-based National Liberty Federation. “There’s a fair amount of excitement over Rubio.”
ON THE OTHER FOOT
Mocking the hype that surrounded Obama’s meteoric rise swiftly became something of a Republican obsession. “After four years of a celebrity president, is your life any better?” asked one 2012 campaign ad from the American Crossroads super PAC. A 2008 McCain ad called “Celeb” featured footage of Obama’s speech to a cheering crowd of 200,000 in Berlin and derisively compared him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. “The most articulate and talented teleprompter reader in America,” Rubio once called the president.
Now the senator is flipping the script. Rubio by the numbers: 346,286 Facebook friends, 262,553 Twitter followers, and 1,712,327 views of his YouTube channel. Republicans boast about his star power extending beyond national borders. “He’s at the top of the checklist for every foreign dignitary visiting Washington,” said Claver-Carone of the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC. “They all want to meet with the president, the secretary of State, and him. That’s remarkable for a freshman senator.” Rubio’s fundraising committee is promoting a contest in which the winner gets to meet him at the Conservative Political Action Conference next month: “Enter now and you could win the chance to fly out to Washington, D.C., have VIP seating for my speech, and meet me backstage.”
The risk of Rubio’s celebrity, however, is that narrative sometimes collides with reality. The tea-party hero is a career politician (aside from brief stints as a lawyer/lobbyist) who routinely billed personal expenses to an American Express card paid by the Florida Republican Party. The fiscal hawk who strenuously opposes raising the debt ceiling once faced foreclosure on a condominium he owns with his close friend, former Rep. David Rivera of Miami. The son of Cuban exiles frequently referred to his parents’ flight after Fidel Castro took over in 1959 but was forced to correct the record after The Washington Post and the Tampa Bay Times reported that the couple actually arrived in Florida in 1956.
Rubio, whose office declined an interview request from NJ, addresses all of these issues in his memoir, An American Son, casting himself as the victim of a scandal-hungry press and offering a case-by-case rebuttal. The book (another way in which he has followed Obama’s game plan) provides his unfiltered and, in some cases, misleading version of events. He writes, for example, “I reviewed the [American Express] statement every month and paid for unofficial purchases directly.” In fact, his payments were irregular and included a six-month lapse. Rubio also says the charges for airline tickets were “easily explained” as political trips appropriately billed to the party; he omits that he had double-billed some of those trips to the party and to state taxpayers.
But when it comes to toeing the party line, Rubio’s record is nearly bulletproof. He received a 100 percent rating from Americans for Prosperity, a 97 percent rating from the Club for Growth, and a 96 percent rating from Heritage Action for America, an arm of the Heritage Foundation. Good luck to any future rival who seeks to outflank him on the right. He voted against the Violence Against Women Act, a United Nations treaty to protect the disabled, and the fiscal-cliff deal that raised taxes on families earning more than $450,000. He also opposed federal aid to superstorm Sandy victims and to states damaged by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “What sets him apart from other people who just call themselves conservatives is that he’s willing to take the tougher votes,” said AFP President Tim Phillips.
In the homestretch before the November election, Rubio decried gay marriage in automated calls to voters in battleground states. He voted to end funding to Planned Parenthood, called the recent anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision “tragic,” and cosponsored a bill to allow employers to opt out of covering birth control in their health insurance plans. After Obama announced a sweeping gun-control agenda in response to the shooting deaths at a Connecticut elementary school, Rubio said on Fox News, “I actually think the president—and he just doesn’t have the guts to admit it—is not a believer in the Second Amendment.” Asked in the GQ interview about the age of the Earth, he responded, “I’m not a scientist, man.” When BuzzFeed asked him if climate change is a threat to Florida, he said, “I’ve seen reasonable debate on that.” Yet, the decision to have him respond to Obama’s State of the Union address shows that the party sees Rubio as a standard-bearer.
LIVING THE DREAM
It was against that straight-ticket conservative record that Rubio plunged into the immigration debate and, for the first time since he got to Congress, challenged the Republican base to follow his lead. He whipped through scores of interviews with conservative media outlets and, with a few exceptions, was greeted as a conquering hero. Immigration hard-liners, from Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly to radio talk-show host Mark Levin, melted in the presence of their party’s idol. “I don’t like Marco Rubio’s plan. There. I said it,” wrote RedState blogger Erick Erickson, all apologetic. “The GOP was smart to put Marco Rubio as the face of the plan, because many of us like him personally, support him still, and consequently don’t want to seem critical.”
Polls show a majority of Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, and while support is thinner among Republicans, it was 42 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 53 percent in an Associated Press/GfK survey last month, and 59 percent in a recent Gallup Poll. Rubio’s immigration rollout comes as the Republican Party is more motivated than ever to bridge the gap with Hispanics, the fastest-growing slice of the electorate. “Marco has the best instincts and timing of anyone I’ve ever known,” said Rubio’s former campaign manager, Jose Mallea. “He knows when it’s the right time to strike on an issue.”
The Wall Street Journal story hit on Jan. 14. Rubio endorsed a plan to let illegal immigrants earn citizenship by passing a criminal background check, paying back taxes, proving longtime residency, and learning English. His Senate office relentlessly cranked out the article, plus a gusher of positive reaction on Twitter and in other media outlets, giving Rubio a head start over his Senate colleagues who had weathered epic battles over a similar overhaul effort under then-President George W. Bush. “That he rolled out the same stuff we’ve been talking about for years and presents it as a new idea and gets all this credit is a little frustrating,” said one GOP source familiar with the talks. “There’s a necessity for him to be the face of this legislation, so we’re willing to concede the story line, but I think Rubio himself believes it.”
His sudden embrace of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants was especially puzzling because he had derided the earlier Bush plan during his 2010 campaign. “Earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty,” he said in a debate broadcast on CNN. Mallea insists, “I don’t think he’s evolved or changed. I think he’s expanded. Now he’s been in Washington for two years, and he’s figured it out.”
Immigration reformers who know that a deal hinges on Rubio are less interested in parsing his flip-flops than in earning his blessing. “It is obvious to me that he has evolved on immigration, and I think that bodes well for the future,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the biggest champions of immigration reform in the House.
“Make no mistake about it. If we do come up with an immigration bill, and if Republicans do really buy in, not just in token number but in substantial numbers, Rubio deserves the credit,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the bipartisan reform group who is close to Obama. “John McCain brings the history of the Republican Party. He’s been with us for a long, long time. Marco Rubio brings tomorrow’s chapter of where the Republicans are going.”
So much of the hope invested in Rubio is tied to his Hispanic identity and the community’s emerging political clout. Hispanic voters made up 9 percent of the electorate in 2008 and 10 percent in 2012; they could be 12 percent of the vote in 2016. It’s widely expected that should Rubio run for president, he would garner record-setting Hispanic support for a Republican on a national ticket.
Rubio’s appeal to Hispanics outside of Florida is untested, yet his immigrant success story and message of economic opportunity is assumed to carry universal appeal. “I know the middle class, because I’ve lived it,” Rubio said at a Romney event in Denver aimed at rallying the Hispanic vote, where he talked about his father’s job as a bartender and his mother’s work as a hotel maid and a clerk at Kmart. Mallea was at the event and recalled how Rubio made the older Mexican women cry, the same response the boyishly handsome politician evokes from the Cuban abuelitas back home in Miami.
“Whether you came here by airplane or raft or on foot, you came here because this is the greatest country in the world, and that is the ultimate equalizer,” said Mallea, who is Cuban and Ecuadoran. “I think Hispanics will see him as one of their own because he has that story.”
That expectation is based more on Rubio’s biography than his politics. Had he not come out in favor of legalizing undocumented immigrants, he would have faced resistance from Hispanic voters who disagree with his opposition to Obama’s overhaul of the health care system and to his tax hike on the rich, argues Matt Barreto, principal at a leading Latino polling firm and an associate professor in political science at the University of Washington.
“Marco Rubio is an opportunist,” Barreto said. “When you’re positioning yourself for president, you have to have some issue people can attach to you in terms of policy. But with Rubio, no one cares, because if he can get a bill passed, people will be happy.”
Like Obama, whose rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic convention catapulted him to national prominence, Rubio gave an unforgettable speech at the 2012 convention. Both men are great storytellers who understand the power of detail and the American Dream.
At the Tampa convention, Rubio recalled watching his first political convention in 1980 with his grandfather, disabled by polio. “As a boy, I used to sit on the porch of our house and listen to his stories about history and politics and baseball as he would puff one of three daily Padron cigars,” he said. “The one thing I remember is one thing he wanted me never to forget: That the dreams he had when he was young became impossible to achieve, but there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American.”
Rubio also talked about hearing the jingling of his father’s keys at the door when he came home after a 16-hour day of tending bar. “He stood behind a bar in the back of a room all those years so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room,” the son said. “That journey from behind that bar to behind this podium goes to excellence of the American miracle. That’s not just my story. That’s your story. That’s our story.”
Rubio has that part of his story down pat, but he’s still working on the next chapter. And, fortunately for his prospects, the media appear more than eager to chronicle every step along the way.
Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.