What Happened to Marco Rubio?

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WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) (C), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) (R), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) (L) speak to members of the media after a vote on the Senate floor September 27, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Senate has passed a continuing resolution 54-44 to fund the government through November 15 with the exclusion of defunding the Obama care in which the provision was passed in the House.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard Elahe Izadi
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Beth Reinhard Elahe Izadi
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:42 p.m.

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.”

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