‘Everybody’s talking about Rubio.”
So says a top Republican operative who’s been in touch with nearly every potential presidential campaign, as well as with several top donors.
Jeb Bush’s announcement in December launched both a fundraising juggernaut and an aggressive hiring spree, and Scott Walker’s speech in Iowa the following month lifted Walker to the top of national polls. But a little more than a month later, says the operative, “The Jeb boom is over and people are having second thoughts about Walker.”
The beneficiary in terms of buzz is Marco Rubio, who now has many of the party’s top donors looking at him in a way they weren’t even a month ago. Though Rubio hasn’t made as much noise as his competitors as the 2016 campaign has gotten underway in earnest, his knowledgeable presentations and obvious political talent are nonetheless turning heads or, at least, enough of them. Rubio hasn’t made a big splash, neither building a “shock and awe” campaign like Bush nor delivering a marquee speech like Walker (who afterward seemed almost to be caught off guard by his rapid ascent). Instead, Rubio appears to be gambling on the idea that, in what is sure to be a long primary with a crowded field, a slow-and-steady approach will prevail.
The buzz about Rubio comes on the heels of a successful but nonetheless low-profile book tour that took him through the early-primary states of Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, and New Hampshire, and as the frenetic motion around Bush and Walker has begun to subside.
Bush’s announcement left many conservatives searching for an alternative to the establishment candidate, and Walker has at times looked like he could fill that space. But he has stumbled a couple of times before the press and displayed some shakiness on policy issues.
“He hit his escape velocity so quickly that I’m not sure his infrastructure, or he, can sustain this,” says a top Republican policy adviser. At the Club for Growth’s winter economic conference last month in Palm Beach, Fla., the governor fumbled responses to questions on the Dodd-Frank regulatory bill and the Export-Import Bank. His campaign has hired foreign- and domestic-policy experts and, because Walker spends his days running the state of Wisconsin, he is fitting in briefings in hour-long increments when time permits. The scramble to get him up to speed on national issues has shown.
We haven’t heard nearly as much about Rubio as about Walker, but it’s been a good few months for the Florida senator. Just last week, the Miami billionaire auto dealer Norman Braman told multiple news outlets, including National Review, that he will make a substantial financial contribution to Rubio’s presidential campaign if, as seems likely, he decides to run. At the American Enterprise Institute’s annual donor retreat in Sea Island, Ga., one attendee says Rubio got rave reviews from a crowd that included several billionaires. And in late January, the senator impressed the libertarian-leaning crowd at the Koch brothers’ donor conference in Palm Springs, Calif., and came out on top of an informal straw poll conducted there.
Rubio is also getting positive reviews from conservative intellectuals, and not just from the reform conservatives among whom he’s long had a fan base.
“Senator Rubio is going to be a formidable candidate in 2016, should he decide to run,” says Lanhee Chen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who served as policy director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “He’s spent the last several years developing thoughtful, conservative policy proposals, and he will be a dynamic messenger who can tell the story of how his ideas will contribute to upward mobility, opportunity, and security for all Americans.”
Rubio has made it a point to offer a series of detailed policy proposals over the past two years, including on foreign policy, where he has staked out a muscular internationalist position that has won him plaudits from several officials who served in the George W. Bush administration and who have broadly been referred to as “neoconservatives.”
A major question lingering over Rubio and threatening to dog him with tea-party voters who boosted him to victory in 2010 is his support for the Senate’s Gang of Eight bill, which would have provided a path to legal status for illegal immigrants already in the country. Though Rubio has since said he favors an approach that would secure the border first, it remains to be seen how his role in the 2013 immigration showdown will play with voters. But the latest NBC News/WSJ poll gives some indication: More Republicans say they could see themselves supporting Rubio — a full 56 percent — than anybody else. Forty-nine percent said they could see themselves backing Bush. By the same token, the resistance to a Rubio candidacy is also lower than to a Bush candidacy: While 26 percent said they couldn’t see themselves supporting Rubio, 42 percent said so of Bush.
As conservatives search for an alternative to the establishment candidate, the question right now is whether Rubio can actually break out. Says the GOP policy adviser, “If he never gets escape velocity, he’ll linger around 7 or 8 percent” in the polls. Then again, he says, Rubio “has the greatest potential to make noise in this race.”
For now, he is taking advantage of his opponents’ mistakes and turning the right heads.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.