In West Coast Debut, Marco Rubio Shows He’s Got What GOP Wants Most

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Tom Williams / Roll Call

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is having more coming-out events these days than a quinceañera debutante. On Tuesday night, the 40-year-old Florida Republican went to California to deliver a major speech on government at the presidential library of his conservative hero, the late President Ronald Reagan. The invitation, from former First Lady Nancy Reagan, made clear that Rubio, a former Florida House Speaker just seven months into his freshman term in Washington, is “someone to watch on the national political scene.” Next month he’ll give a foreign policy address at the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina.

Amid the buzz, Rubio has been all but anointed the vice presidential candidate for 2012 by the Republican establishment. And, in fact, given how seemingly desperate the party Brahmans are to find more dynamic nominees, that establishment may even wish it could put Rubio at the top of the ticket. Touted as the face of the GOP’s future, someone who can attract younger and Latino voters to a party that too often alienates both, the Cuban-American Rubio brings the good clean looks, political smarts, eloquent oratory and son-of-immigrants story that give him a cross-over appeal – Michele Bachmann’s conservative bona fides and Jon Huntsman’s pragmatic gravitas – so far missing from the straw-poll parade. “The real challenge for the Republicans will be to field a nominee who can match his skills,” says Ron Sachs, a political consultant and head of Ron Sachs Communications in Tallahassee, Fla. “He’ll be the rock star.”

Rubio, a national no-name two years ago, burst onto the charts in 2010 when he won the open Florida Senate seat by trouncing then Governor Charlie Crist, the moderate Republican who turned independent when it was obvious Rubio would defeat him in the party’s primary. An acolyte of conservative former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Rubio proved an especially shrewd campaigner, riding the gushing support of the GOP’s right-wing Tea Party faction but all the time keeping it at a safe distance. One of his best weapons was soaring, Reaganesque rhetoric about reining in a runaway U.S. government and restoring American exceptionalism, themes he sounded Tuesday night in California: “Today,” Rubio insisted, “we have built for ourselves a government that not even the richest and most prosperous nation on the face of the earth can afford.”

But the eloquence might also be cause for pause among Republicans who are rushing to make Rubio their next Reagan. And a big reason is the current President. The thing Democrats regret most about Barack Obama is that his performance has fallen short of the inspirational speechifying that was his own catapult from state-legislator obscurity to political rock stardom. Al Cardenas, the former Florida Republican Party chairman who today heads the American Conservative Union, said recently that putting Rubio on the ticket next year “almost guarantees” a GOP victory. But veteran Florida political analyst Brian Crowley, editor of the Crowley Political Report, cautions that while Rubio would indeed galvanize the ticket, he’s nonetheless “benefitting right now from the worship of Republican Party folks who don’t know him very well yet.”

Crowley points out that Rubio in August 2011 has yet to come under the kind of national media scrutiny that awaits if he’s the vice presidential pick in August 2012. His record as a state legislator, for example, was relatively thin. And critics say his financial record contradicts his image as a pristine, fiscally conservative crusader. While in the Florida House, Rubio made thousands of dollars in personal purchases with a GOP-issued American Express card to be used only for election-related expenses. (He says it’s all been repaid.) He failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses for one of his political action committees – a PAC from which his wife and some relatives received payments, according to documents — and a $135,000 home equity loan (more than twice the equity he then had in his home) from a bank run by political backers.

The Republican-controlled legislature has since cleared Rubio of any wrongdoing. But one of the Senator’s other celebrated assets could come under question as well: his ability to bring Latinos, who are now the nation’s largest minority and went 67% for Obama in 2008, to the Republican fold. Although some Tea Partiers grouse that Rubio needs to be tougher on immigration, many Latinos see his immigration stances as more akin to the Tea Party’s. Even conservative columnist Ruben Navarrette wrote in the San Diego Union Tribune in July that “Rubio is becoming persona non grata among Latinos outside of the Cuban-American community.”

Rubio and the GOP are betting, based on the fact that Latinos have lost two-thirds of their personal wealth during the Great Recession, that jobs and not immigration will be the overriding Latino voter concern in 2012. Still, Republican leaders too often fail to appreciate the real disconnect between Cuban-Americans, who make up only 3% of the U.S. Latino population and enjoy preferential immigration treatment, and groups like Mexican-Americans, who make up more than 60% of that population and for whom immigration reform and economic well being are quite often inextricably linked.

Then again, Latinos are just as disgruntled with Obama. And as Crowley notes, Rubio otherwise “has done all the right things” since entering the Senate. “He doesn’t have a reputation as a flame-thrower,” says Crowley, “partly because I think he realizes that by 2016 [when he’s up for re-election] he won’t need the Tea Party anymore. He’s in the catbird seat.” Rubio’s refusal to vote for the debt-ceiling deal this month because he said it insufficiently reduced the federal deficit – and his fairly dubious argument that the U.S. would not have faced default if the ceiling hadn’t been lifted – didn’t cost him much. In fact, Rubio even got a shout-out from U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who amid the fiasco quoted Rubio’s anti-revenue increase remark that the country “doesn’t need more taxes – it needs more taxpayers.”

So perhaps being the Senate’s new Barack Obama, at least in term of oratorical skill, is indeed a plus for Rubio and his party. Rubio on Tuesday night said he’s “not going to be the vice presidential nominee.” But, says Crowley, Rubio on the ticket “is a real threat to Obama, because he stands to win the same kind of emotional votes that Obama won in 2008.” And Rubio may have picked up a few of those votes last night in California when, while escorting the 90-year-old Nancy Reagan to her seat, he caught her when she fell. It only added to his aura as the politician destined to rescue the Reagan revolution.