Politics & Policy

How Bob Dole’s ’96 Campaign Shaped Marco Rubio

The doomed Dole campaign gave Marco Rubio an inner circle in Miami politics.

When David Rivera asked then-25-year-old Marco Rubio to lead Bob Dole’s 1996 general-election campaign in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, he was making a leap of faith.

The leap of faith fell short. Dole trailed Clinton throughout the summer and fall of ’96, creating an atmosphere of doom around the sunny office. Dole eventually lost Florida to incumbent Bill Clinton, 48 percent to 42 percent, and the results weren’t any better in Rubio’s territory: Dole lost Monroe County, 48 percent to 42 percent, and he lost Miami-Dade, 57 percent to 37 percent.

The Dole campaign’s inability to seriously compete, much less win, taught some important and hard lessons for Rubio and the ambitious young Florida Republicans who worked under him in an office in Little Havana that summer. Ironically, the fresh-faced, inexperienced staffers couldn’t overcome South Floridians’ concerns about the 73-year-old Dole’s age and health.

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On Friday, a reporter asked Rubio if 43 was old enough to be president; Rubio pointed out he’ll be 44 next month, and 45 on Election Day 2016. After beginning his political life by watching Floridians – many of whom were approaching Dole’s age or beyond it, and perhaps projecting their own health concerns onto the GOP nominee – reject Dole in part because of his age, it’s not so surprising that Rubio relishes his young, energetic, no-waiting-his-turn image.

The members of the team Rubio led internalized the same lesson. Many of them would have much better luck in the years after the Dole campaign, either reaching the height of state politics on their own or working for Rubio as long-time, loyal staffers.

Rivera became one of Rubio’s closest friends and went on to serve in the state legislature and in Congress before his career was cut short by allegations of serious campaign finance wrongdoing. Carlos Lopez-Cantera is now the lieutenant governor of Florida and is thinking about running for Rubio’s U.S. Senate seat. Anitere Flores, who was Jeb Bush’s education policy chief and served in the state House, is now a state senator.

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Then there were the Dole volunteers and staffers who went on to work for Rubio. Monica Rodriguez worked as a staffer for Rubio in the state legislature and was the Miami-Dade County co-chair for Newt Gingrich for President in 2012. Alina Garcia worked for Rubio in the state legislature, before moving over to Rivera’s office and becoming his district director during his congressional term. Jose Mallea went on to be deputy political director for George W. Bush’s Florida campaign in 2000, a personal aide to White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, and Rubio’s campaign manager for his 2010 Senate bid. And Nelson Diaz became Rubio’s first legislative aide in the state House, and in 2012 was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County.

Diaz says the group remained close-knit and stayed in touch for years after the Dole campaign, coming to call themselves “the class of 1996.”

“We had a great time, and we all really bonded,” Diaz says. “Marco, Rivera, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, — the group of us all grew up together, politically.”

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Rubio, fresh out of law school, was an unusual choice to lead the group in many ways. He was full of energy and hadn’t been involved with politics long enough to make any enemies in the byzantine Republican politics of the Miami area.

The future senator and current presidential candidate didn’t always act like a consummate professional, either. In his autobiography, Rubio describes an early trip that began with irreverence and quickly turned intensely embarrassing:

In early January, the [Dole] campaign chartered a plane and flew some of us to Concord, New Hampshire, where we walked door-to-door, handing out Florida oranges to voters and asking them to support Senator Dole. I’m not sure how many voters we persuaded, but the trip went well enough and we had a lot of fun. A few of the younger volunteers stopped at a local liquor store and bought bottles of vodka. On the flight home, about ten of us celebrated our successful foray into New Hampshire politics by holding a vodka shot competition. I was one of the few still standing when the contest ended.

Unfortunately for Rubio, vodka and the plane’s turbulence made for a rough combination, and he ended up regurgitating upon “a well-known political operative who had volunteered on the campaign.” Rubio wrote that he turned in that direction because the other option was to vomit on Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, with whom Rubio had interned a few years earlier as a University of Florida student.

#related#Years later, Ros-Lehtinen would tease Rubio about the incident over Twitter: “Unlike @marcorubio, you don’t have 2 throw up in front of me 2 get my attention.”

Rubio has received good-natured grief about it from others, as well: “John Thrasher, a future speaker of the Florida House, was on the plane and witnessed my humiliation, which he would playfully remind me of years later when he swore me in as a new member of the legislature,” Rubio wrote.

“I’m not surprised that he’s running for president. But had you asked that question 15, 20 years ago when I first met him? When he was 24, I would never have said it,” Diaz says with a chuckle.

The job gave Rubio his first taste of the media, with mixed results. He was asked to give an interview on the campaign’s behalf to a Spanish-language radio station. He later characterized the experience as a disaster, a hard lesson on the need to be fully prepared for an on-air debate.

Manuel Roig-Franzia, in his biography The Rise of Marco Rubio, quotes Rubio telling the Canadian Maclean’s magazine: “If this election was an audition for host of a talk show, Dole wouldn’t stand a chance. This is a campaign that will truly test whether we’re a nation of substance or style.”

The campaign ultimately set Rubio on his path into the political world. The preceding summer, Rubio had been an intern in a local prosecutor’s office and lined up an entry-level job in the Miami-Dade office of the state attorney to begin after Election Day.

Rubio’s work in Dole’s Little Havana office caught the eye of Al Cardenas, then a prominent Miami lawyer and major player in Florida Republican politics, as well as a former Reagan and Bush administration official. Cardenas offered Rubio a job at his law firm, which paid twice as well as the state attorney’s office. For Rubio, with close to $150,000 in student loan debt, a father about to retire, and a college sweetheart, Jeanette Dousdebes, he was intent on marrying, the decision was easy. (Cardenas went on to become chairman of the Florida GOP and the chairman of the American Conservative Union.)

Despite Rubio’s fond memories of his short time on the Dole campaign, and the respect with which his colleagues and Cardenas speak of him, there is one figure from the 1996 campaign who seems less than impressed with Rubio . . . the candidate at the top of the ticket.

In an interview with the Wichita Eagle last summer, Dole brought up “the younger members, first-termers like Rand Paul, (Marco) Rubio and that extreme-right-wing guy – Ted Cruz? All running for president now.”

His verdict?

“I don’t think they’ve got enough experience yet.”

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review Online.

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