Over the weekend, Marco Rubio went mum.
To the disappointment of political junkies, the freshman Florida senator once again declined a chance to play Washington’s favorite parlor game: speculating on the vice-presidential sweepstakes.
“The last thing [Mitt Romney] needs is those of us in the peanut gallery to be saying what we would or would not do,” Rubio said on CNN’s State of the Union. “I’m not going to even discuss the process anymore.”
Rubio’s comments are hardly a surprise. He has been swatting away the chatter about his likely contention for the GOP’s number-two slot since his ascension to the upper chamber. During nearly every editorial-board meeting, radio interview, and television appearance, he has been asked the same question. And every answer he gives, like the one he gave Sunday, has been the same: He’s flattered but not interested.
But the talk about his prospects, Rubio associates acknowledge, will not fizzle simply because Rubio clammed up on a Sunday talk show. Behind the scenes, Rubio’s political team is preparing for what could be a months-long, nonstop discussion about the “process” and Rubio’s rising profile.
Within Rubio’s broad political circle, from his allies to his foes, there is an open debate over whether Team Rubio’s response to the veep gossip is focused on snuffing out the idea or stoking it.
On Capitol Hill, Rubio’s friends talk about how the senator is working tirelessly for Florida and becoming a strong voice on foreign policy. On the veep question, he is said to take the same position in private as he does publicly. According to sources close to him, Rubio doesn’t mind the spotlight — it gives him a chance to highlight issues important to him, such as GOP outreach to Hispanics and the fight for religious freedom — but he’s not seduced by it.
Beyond that, as much as Rubio enjoys the opportunity to be a new national force, he is not, in any sense, campaigning to be vice president, Rubio insiders insist. He wants to help Romney, who has frequently asked Rubio to join him on the trail, but he is not eager to leave the Senate, where he would like to do more to help enact conservative policies and elect conservative candidates.
“I really don’t believe that he is looking to be [vice president],” says Jose Mallea, a Rubio confidant who managed his 2010 campaign. “There is no strategy session going on behind closed doors about how to become [Romney’s pick]. He is not looking for that.”
“Now, I haven’t spoken to him directly about it, but every time we have a conversation, it’s about ideas and policies — about the direction of the country,” Mallea says. “That’s what drives him, and that’s what he enjoys talking about — that, and discussing the upcoming NFL draft.”
Brian Graham, a Florida-based GOP strategist, agrees. He says that Rubio may already be a national leader, but that doesn’t mean that he is rushing to be on a national ticket. “The rest of the country is starting to see what we saw in Florida years ago — that Marco Rubio is very bright and very talented,” he says. “What impresses me is how he’s handling the push for him to be Romney’s pick. He’s been disciplined and shown a lot of maturity.”
Of course, Rubio hasn’t been absent from national politics, even as he rebuffs the veep talk. Rubio’s political-action committee, Reclaim America, is already backing select Senate candidates, such as Ohio’s Josh Mandel.
Rubio’s advisers expect his PAC activity to increase, with Rubio taking a cue from Senator Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund. He’ll boost Romney whenever possible, sources say, but Rubio’s aim this year will be to offer his name and network to impressive conservative contenders.
Protecting Rubio’s political brand is another project, quieter than his PAC. His political advisers are wary of what the coming months will bring. As Rubio’s stature continues to rise, reporters and Democratic researchers will surely revisit controversies from Rubio’s past. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Rubio’s political committee “has spent more than $40,000 for investigators to research negative attacks that could surface against him” and also asked the Florida Ethics Commission to close its dormant investigation of a complaint about Rubio’s use of the state GOP’s expense account.
Some of this effort on Rubio’s behalf is related to the vice-presidential coverage, one top supporter explains, but it’s also part of a broader goal within Rubio’s inner circle to better tell the senator’s story, especially as Rubio’s memoir, An American Son, nears its mid-June release date. “This is due diligence,” the supporter says. “It’s not about getting Rubio a national profile. He already has one. What Marco wants is to get better at handling what comes at them . . . They got an early start, and they’ve got good people.”
Florida strategist Rick Wilson, a Rubio ally, says that Rubio’s advisers are smart to prepare for the onslaught of coverage, but Wilson takes care to say that Rubio’s opposition-style research on his own biography is not anything new — it merely takes what Rubio did in Florida to the national level. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, he’s the most vetted vice-presidential candidate in the field,” Wilson says. “He’s had the most recent and hardest scrub of his record. Remember, in 2010, when he was running against Charlie Crist’s machine and the Democrats, they dropped every piece of dirty laundry on him. He was vetted, and it didn’t stick.”
In some Tallahassee political circles, however, the youthful senator’s disavowals prompt chuckles. He was known, when he was the state House speaker, as one of the party’s most ambitious and cunning power brokers. The notion that Rubio suddenly has little, if any, desire to live at the Naval Observatory amuses his former colleagues, who see Team Rubio’s defensive posture as a sign that he is indeed interested in the position.
“Look, what he has said up to now is probably an accurate reflection of what he believes would be in his best long-term interest,” says Don Brown, a Republican and Rubio’s former state House colleague. Brown notes that he had a “few differences” with Rubio when he was speaker, but he offers careful praise: “He’s smart enough to know that it would be a huge responsibility and that it’s something that could be perceived as premature. If the call came, there would be a lot of pressure to accept it. But at this point, I think he may not even know whether he wants it or not. He’s got a big future, but this is a tough call.”
Rubio was in Pennsylvania on Monday with Romney, stumping a day ahead of the Keystone State’s primary. The relationship between the pair is said to be friendly, with both men committed to ousting the president from the White House in November. They are aligned on most issues. But Romney, for instance, told the crowd in Aston, Pa., that he is still “studying” Rubio’s latest immigration-reform proposal, which would give the children of illegal immigrants a visa to continue their studies.
The event, which also included the usual responses to the veep question, was a snapshot of where Rubio stands today — a new Republican star who backs Romney, but one who is not working feverishly to curry his favor. According to his aides, he covets his independence and his ability to shape his own policy agenda. The veep buzz is a distraction, if a pleasant one.
“He was a young speaker and is a young senator,” says Justin Sayfie, a Republican operative and the editor of the Sayfie Review, a popular Florida news blog. “He has had a very fast ascent. Even though he rules out being [vice president], his name keeps getting mentioned. By going to Pennsylvania, [he] showed that he’s willing to encourage it a little bit.”
Moving forward, if Rubio declines to be vetted — and declining is a possibility, sources say — or if he is not tapped for the veep slot, he would still like to play a role in the general-election campaign, perhaps via a primetime speech at the Republican convention in Tampa in late August.
“I expect him to be one of the top people whom Romney looks to for guidance, regardless of the specific title or role,” Wilson says. “He has developed a lot in the last two years, really coming into his role as senator. He’s gaining respect for his foreign-policy work. He has obvious national appeal. Romney and Romney’s advisers notice that, I’m sure. Rubio may not want it, but many, many Republicans want him there.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.