Miami — Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) hopes to draw a sharp contrast with Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 presidential-election cycle. On Monday, he got his first chance. Clinton, after weeks of battling a scandal about the e-mails that she hid from government oversight, released a campaign video that didn’t feature her at all for the first minute.
Rubio, on the other hand, might have a shot at the title of most transparent presidential candidate ever — or at least the easiest interview to book.
“We’re very confident about using earned media,” says Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. Unlike Clinton and some Republicans, Rubio plans to embrace the press as a key part of his political strategy, believing that he can use reporters to spread his message to the voters he’ll need to survive a primary and win the general election.
“America doesn’t owe me anything, but I have a debt to America I must try to repay,” Rubio told the crowd of 1,000 people assembled for his announcement speech. He went on to describe his father’s progress from Cuban refugee to American bartender, saying, “That journey, from behind that bar to behind this podium, is the essence of the American Dream.” It’s the same inspirational story that turned him into a national star among tea-party Republicans in 2010. It also led establishment Republicans to make him the GOP face of the Senate Gang of Eight immigration bill that conservative activists hated.
Despite this disapproval from activists, Rubio’s team is confident in his political skills. They plan to hold town halls in all the early states and talk to as many reporters as possible, on the theory that Rubio’s personal appeal and rhetorical skills will allow him to overcome any lingering ill will from the immigration debate, if only he can reach enough voters.
Rubio alluded to the immigration debate at the crescendo of his speech:
Now the time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American Century. If we reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws, and repeal and replace Obamacare, the American people will create millions of better-paying modern jobs.
The framing of those issues followed his preferred line of attack against Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and former governor Jeb Bush (R., Fla.). “While our people and economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century,” he said earlier in the speech. “They are busy looking backward, so they do not see how jobs and prosperity today depend on our ability to compete in a global economy.”
Drawing laughter, he concluded: “So our leaders put us at a disadvantage by taxing, borrowing, and regulating like it’s 1999.”
Rubio took the stage in the evening, eschewing the midday announcement times chosen by Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.), in a bid to draw more viewers for his speech. “People happen to watch TV at 6:30,” a top Rubio adviser told the New York Times. “Only people like us watch cable in the middle of the day.”
#related#Rubio also did a battery of interviews with outlets across the political spectrum — a media-friendly strategy he plans to continue throughout the campaign. “It’s great if you can do it,” one GOP strategist tells NR. “But it’s a high-wire act.” Case in point: Rubio spoke not just to Fox News’s Sean Hannity but also to NPR and to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who angered Republicans with his unexpected questions about contraception during a Republican primary debate last cycle.
Such a use of the press, his advisers believe, will help him compete in all the early-primary states, despite the difficulty of trying to win Iowa and New Hampshire without the benefit of a preexisting campaign organization. Most of the top-tier candidates have that problem, though; what they don’t have is Rubio’s political talent.
“Our biggest challenge is there is only one of him,” Rubio spokesman Conant says. “As people get to know him, they embrace him.”
Some of those people may have to forgive him, first, but Rubio’s team sees a silver lining even in the immigration debacle. “He is appealing to every sort of voter we’ve got — economic conservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, foreign-policy conservatives — and he has an appeal to the middle as well,” says Jim Merrill, Rubio’s senior adviser for New Hampshire, in a conversation following the speech.
Rubio hopes to mitigate the damage done by the Gang of Eight fight by assuring conservatives that he’s learned from the mistake. “What I’ve learned is you can’t even have a conversation about [illegal immigrants already in the country] until people believe and know, not just believe, but it’s proven to them, that future illegal immigration is brought under control,” he said in February at CPAC, after calling Obama’s executive orders on immigration “the strongest argument” against the Gang of Eight bill, because it proved that Obama can’t be trusted.
That argument resonates with at least some Hispanic voters. “That’s not the way I would have done it,” says Ahmed Martel, an Internet marketing consultant who immigrated from Cuba as an adult. When asked about Obama’s orders, Martel expresses his fear that they will open the door to uncontrolled levels of immigration: “The country is going to collapse.” (The United States should secure “the frontier,” Martel says, and then provide legal status to illegal immigrants already in the country.)
On the way to the Freedom Tower before Rubio’s speech, an UberX driver who immigrated from Brazil expressed the same worry about Obama’s immigration orders, which she characterized as meaning that Brazilians don’t have to get visas anymore. “In Brazil, there is no law,” she says. “Here, there is the law.”
The woman — a “Marine Mom,” as a plate on her car proudly advertises — doesn’t follow politics much. She doesn’t know why Republicans won’t work more with President Obama, but she knows this: “I like Marco Rubio.”
Fifty-five percent of Republican primary voters do, too. “Marco Rubio has the highest favorability of any of the Republicans hopefuls we tested,” Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, reported on April 1. If they vote based on their hearts rather than Rubio’s immigration record, he might just win this thing.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.