Almost every politician who aspires to statewide office brings along a staffer when meeting a group of reporters. Usually it’s the communications director or press secretary, or perhaps the chief of staff. Usually the staffer is there to drive the candidate around, keep him on schedule, monitor how he is doing, and perhaps kick him under the table if, while answering questions on the record, he starts straying off-message in a Bidenesque manner.
When U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio dropped by National Review’s Washington office to meet the editors in late July, he arrived alone — in fact, he traveled alone for his entire trip from Florida to the capital. You could take that as a sign of a shoestring campaign; but the more apt conclusion is that Rubio knows who he is and what he wants to say — there’s never a need to kick him under the table.
From one angle, Rubio is involved in a classic David vs. Goliath race: his primary opponent, Florida governor Charlie Crist, has nearly universal name recognition in the state; a large fundraising advantage; the early endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; the endorsement of departing senator Mel Martinez; and leads of 30 percentage points or more in the early polls. Rubio is a former speaker of the state House, barely known outside of Tallahassee and his hometown of Miami, and is fighting the perception that his campaign is a test run for a 2012 race against Democratic senator Bill Nelson.
But a late-July Mason-Dixon poll found that among those who had heard of both candidates, Crist is favored by only 33 percent to Rubio’s 31 percent. There are other hopeful signs: The NRSC endorsement triggered some grassroots outrage, and Rubio has gotten the endorsement of one of the Senate’s leading conservatives, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint. Prof. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia isn’t ruling out a Rubio win.
With his political experience entirely in state government, it’s natural to wonder: Why didn’t Rubio run to succeed Crist as governor? The first reason is that there is already a conservative in that race — the state attorney general. “Bill McCollum is someone I agree with,” Rubio says. “There might be a few disagreements here and there, but it’s not enough to justify a challenge.” And there are other reasons to be looking beyond Florida politics: “If we keep going down the path that we’re on in Washington, then what we do in Tallahassee won’t matter. The time to pay the piper is closer than people think it is.”
Over a two-hour conversation, Rubio offers a conservative message on a wide spectrum of issues, often punctuating his points with memorable and witty observations: “We’re getting lectured to by the Chinese on economics”; “On the stimulus, mostly we’re stimulating the debt”; “No start-up guy is going to get any stimulus dollars”; “I like Dick Cheney, but nobody’s perfect — he’s not a very good hunter, apparently”; “Cuban-Americans don’t think of themselves as minorities, because in Miami, they’re the majority”; “There’s a correlation between cigar-smokers and their politics.”
On immigration, Rubio disagrees a bit with his mentor, Jeb Bush, and another former governor, George W. He prefers a tougher line on illegal immigration, but he understands the immigrant dream. His grandfather was a poor Cuban who fought off polio and became the only one out of 18 children who learned how to read and write. He emigrated to America, moved to Las Vegas, and prospered — spending his senior years smoking cigars in a full suit in the Nevada heat. “The ability to leave your kids better off is what drives people to come to this country,” Rubio says, stressing that he empathizes with the dreams of illegal immigrants even if he can’t excuse their actions. “In a lot of cases, they come here to get away from the kind of government ideas we’re talking about today, having the government run almost all the aspects of the economy.”
Rubio calls the Obama administration’s response to Honduras’s power struggle “outrageous,” and when discussing the Iranian protests, laments that the loudest voice for freedom and liberty on the world stage belongs to French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Rubio wonders aloud how President Obama can claim he doesn’t want to interfere with Iran’s political upheaval when it took him “all of seven minutes to intervene in Honduras.” He says he expects Latin America to be a “flashpoint” in the coming decade.
Is there anything for a conservative to dislike about Marco Rubio? Those skeptical of Mike Huckabee or the Fair Tax might furrow their brows a bit, as Rubio is sympathetic to the former Arkansas governor and his economic policies. It will be fascinating to see the broader public reaction to the baby-faced Rubio as the race heats up — he is 38 years old but looks to be in his 20s. (He married a Miami Dolphins cheerleader twelve years ago, and they have four children; he expresses complete confidence in current Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington — as long as the offensive line protects him.)
Patrick Ruffini recently wrote, “Ask presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney how far early, high dollar bundler support got them. Or Virginia Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe how much a 10-to-1 cash advantage is worth. Underfunded candidates like Rubio don’t need more money now. They need an argument. A bulletproof argument from a plausible candidate is worth tens of millions of dollars in any primary, overwhelming a financial advantage of any magnitude.”
Asked what his message is, Rubio offers one that is clear — but not necessarily specific to this race: “There are few things more unjust than the possibility that my kids are going to inherit a weaker nation than the one I inherited from my parents. . . . Things don’t have to be the way they are. You can lose your country. America will not become Marxist, but it will lose what makes it unique unless we act.”
But there’s room for an argument that’s a bit sharper — even if Rubio says he wants to win the primary without tearing down Crist. Put simply: If the best the Florida Republican party can do in a Senate race against weak Democratic opponents is to nominate a man who held a rally for Obama’s stimulus, the party might as well close up shop and go home.
Recognizing that fact, Rubio isn’t worried about his disadvantage in fundraising: “No amount of money will convince Florida Republicans that the stimulus and cap-and-trade are good ideas.”
Observers of Florida politics have long assumed that, at some point, a top-tier Democrat would express interest in Mel Martinez’s old Senate seat — but so far, the party’s options are laughable: Kendrick Meek, a Democratic member of the U.S. House who represents a district so liberal he has never faced even a token Republican opponent; Kevin Burns, the largely unknown mayor of North Miami; and black congresswoman Corrine Brown, best known for calling a Hispanic Bush appointee a white man and then explaining that they “all look alike to me.” Could there be a greater liability in Florida politics than to tell whites and Hispanics they are indistinguishable?
As time passes, the 2010 Florida Senate race is looking more and more like a GOP gimme. And if that’s the case, why pick the stimulus-backing, cap-and-trade-backing, Obama-embracing, kinda-sorta-maybe conservative Crist over a Cuban-American with nine years in elected office who is pledging that he won’t sell out his principles?
A lot can change between now and the Republican primary in August 2010, but if the country’s mood then is similar to what it is right now, the smart money might be on Rubio. Day by day, Obama proves himself to be precisely the liberal that he claimed he wasn’t. Crist bet that he could embrace Obama early — literally — and survive a Republican primary in a state where John McCain carried 48 percent of the vote while being outspent two to one.
In a closed primary with a million or so eligible voters, Rubio needs to persuade about 600,000 Republicans that he’s the better choice. Hardly mission impossible.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.