TwentySixteen

Marco Rubio Is the Rock Star They Feared He Would Be

He’s young. He’s unknown. On some issues, he’s out of step. And yet”¦

National Journal
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Tim Alberta
April 19, 2015, 7:45 a.m.

NASHUA, New Hampshire—The speech had ended and the room was clearing out, but Barry Devine lingered near the podium, gazing at the stage. The 73-year-old Republican activist, in a suit and Vietnam veteran cap, had just heard a young senator deliver the dinner address at the New Hampshire GOP’s spring kickoff event. And it left him mesmerized—even a bit emotional.

He wasn’t alone.

In Marco Rubio’s debut as an official candidate in this first-in-the-nation primary state, the junior senator from Florida demonstrated exactly the potential Republican insiders have been chattering about for months. The settings changed—Manchester Community College’s welding and automotive labs, an upscale house party with donors, door-knocking in residential neighborhoods, a hotel ballroom packed with the state GOP’s elite—yet the dynamic remained remarkably consistent.

When Rubio arrives, he is largely unknown. When he speaks, he delivers a linear stump speech. And when he finishes, audience members say they feel certain that they’ve witnessed the beginning of something special.

(RELATED: The Great Risk in Marco Rubio’s 2016 Run)

“I’ll just say this: We’ve got to bring this country back. I didn’t fight in Vietnam for nothing,” Devine said. Nodding to Rubio, he added, “And I think he could do it.”

Everything about Rubio—his policy prescriptions, his family history, his “youthful energy”—resonated with Devine. But what made Rubio his favorite speaker in a day of appearances from Republican 2016 contenders was something less tangible. “The most important thing,” Devine said, “is that he really loves his country.”

This sounds trite, but it’s cementing as a key piece of Rubio’s profile in the eyes of voters. Earlier in the day, when Rubio spoke at Jay Pedone’s home in Manchester, the senator delivered what has become his standard stump speech—touching on themes of family, upward mobility, global competitiveness, and national security. He offered specific proposals on everything from college accreditation to regulatory budgets. And at least two people in the crowd grew emotional when he spoke about the impact of 2016 on his kids’ futures. When Pedone, a 41-year-old accountant and father of four, was asked his thoughts on Rubio’s speech, the answer was succinct: “American exceptionalism.”

“He has got the best personal story of anyone in the field, and it’s a story that connects really well with people,” said Frank Luntz, the Republican polling and public opinion guru, after Rubio’s speech Friday night. The reason it connects, based on Luntz’s research, is “because he so clearly loves America.”

(RELATED: Marco Rubio and the “Moneyball” Campaign)

It’s hardly an original concept—every candidate, of every party, in every election, espouses their love of country. It’s so conventional that voters tune it out or fail to take notice. Yet with Rubio—who talks about how America “isn’t just a country, it’s a place that literally changed the history of my family”—it has becoming a thematic centerpiece of his campaign.

Luntz conducted a focus group on Thursday night with New Hampshire Republicans and independents likely to vote in next year’s GOP primary. He heard something that he has been hearing across the country—that Republicans “are desperate to replace the president with someone who is patriotic and not afraid to talk about it.” But when he proceeded to ask about specific candidates, he realized Rubio was breaking through. “I heard it last night,” Luntz said. “The language they used is that he’s ‘passionately patriotic.’”

Rubio earned the nickname “the Michael Jordan of Republican politics” for a reason; many GOP stalwarts believe he is the party’s most naturally gifted politician since Ronald Reagan. Those skills were on full display in this New Hampshire debut, and activists in other states are already buzzing about his arrival and how it will shake up the field.

(RELATED: Obama Heads To Marco Rubio’s Backyard To Promote Climate Change)

But that’s not the only impression Rubio is making. 

NOAH MATHISON AND Dan Winter, both first-year welding students at Manchester Community College, found themselves in a small classroom Friday morning with a senator they had never heard of. Their professor had asked them to stick around after class to hear from a presidential candidate, so they did, though both claimed to dislike politicians.

Then Rubio spoke. He checked off his standard boxes, but tailored his speech to the audience by emphasizing the importance of blue-collar jobs and the value of two-year colleges—all while decrying the “stigmatization” of people who work with their hands.

“I don’t hear too many people saying ‘college isn’t for everyone,’ especially not politicians,” said Mathison, who works part-time at Home Depot while pursuing his associate’s degree in welding. Winter chimed in: “You always hear them pushing four-year degrees. But people forget about two-year degrees and certificate jobs.”

The day could hardly have been better choreographed: Rubio, who frequently talks about good-paying, blue-collar jobs, connecting on a gut level with blue-collar welding students; Rubio, with his boyish smile and quick wit, charming a house full of potential supporters by promising a young Red Sox fan that he dislikes the Yankees; Rubio, the stage to himself in the most coveted slot of the weekend, silencing a dinner crowd by urging them to think about upward mobility through the eyes of the maids at their hotel and the servers at their restaurant.

(RELATED: Sign up for TwentySixteen — National Journal‘s daily guide to 2016)

And yet there is a palpable sense that none of the buzz around Rubio—his talent, his upside, his emotional appeal—may wind up translating into concrete support. He has for months been polling in the single digits both nationally and in early nominating states. He has made no known staff hires in Iowa. And in New Hampshire, despite his sparkling debut, even those people singing his praises were quick to emphasize that they aren’t prepared to pick a side.

“I haven’t decided who I’m supporting at this point. We don’t even know everyone who’s running yet,” said Pedone, who hosted the Rubio house party. “I would love to have more candidates come here.”

Even the veteran activist Rubio wowed with his Friday speech, wouldn’t commit. “I like Rand. I like Scott Walker. I even like, believe it or not, Rick Perry—he’s really done his homework,” said Devine, who, after making 7,000 calls for Scott Brown’s 2014 Senate campaign, will be a sought-after volunteer for any of the presidential hopefuls. “I don’t want to close the door on anyone yet.”

FOR ALL HIS political upside, Rubio faces two major obstacles to becoming president. The first relates to the primary and the formidable rivals now entering the field.

On every issue, from every angle, Rubio faces stiff competition—so much so that voters at Friday night’s dinner, even after listening to his tremendous speech, were already buzzing about hearing from Ted Cruz and Scott Walker the next day. All of his opponents are competing on the same turf, and some are taking much firmer stances on immigration, an issue that moves numbers. Rubio may be viewed as the most patriotic candidate, but does patriotism drive voters—even Republican primary voters—to the polls?

The second obstacle relates to the general election, should Rubio survive the primaries and emerge as his party’s nominee. Rubio launched his campaign in Miami last week, casting himself as a new breed of Republican, someone with fresh ideas and modern solutions to 21st-century problems. This is not entirely untrue; Rubio has proposed many innovative reforms over the past year, especially to higher education. Yet on critical issues of the day—same-sex marriage, for example, or the normalization of relations with Cuba—Rubio’s positions run counter to the current of public opinion, particularly among young people.

This clash was visible Friday morning as Rubio toured the auto-tech facilities at Manchester Community College. Rubio at one point spoke for an extended time with Marc Bellerose, the chairman of the automotive department, about technological upgrades in new vehicles. Rubio had repeatedly mentioned in his classroom speech how automotive technicians make good money and are in high demand, and asked Bellerose questions about the work done by students in his garage. Bellerose explained that Chrysler funds much of his department—donating vehicles, covering training costs, and paying for equipment, tools, and machinery that the school could never otherwise afford.

A few minutes later, speaking with reporters, I asked Rubio whether he would have bailed out the domestic automakers as president in 2008 and 2009. “I don’t think that was the right way to handle it—but certainly our auto industry is important,” Rubio said. “Again, it was a problematic approach that the federal government took to doing it.”

Rubio seemed uncomfortable with the question and did not elaborate on his criticism of the bailout. But his response was taped by a Democratic tracker, and the video prompted a story about Rubio’s comments in The Detroit News—a publication whose conservative editorial board criticized Mitt Romney’s lingering opposition to the highly popular bailout of General Motors and Chrysler.

When Rubio left, I asked Bellerose whether he would have a job without the auto bailout—and whether his students would have a program to learn their trade in. “That’s an interesting question,” Bellerose, an independent who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, said with a smile. “We talk about it all the time.”

But Bellerose said he was impressed overall with Rubio, whom he’d sneaked upstairs to listen to earlier that morning. “He made a good impression, so we’ll see,” Bellerose said. “I’m gonna be watching him.”

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