Is Rubio the new face of the old GOP?

Some Republicans call Marco Rubio their party’s Obama — and they don’t mean it kindly. Others call him their best chance of heading off Donald Trump. We hear about the meteoric rise of a Cuban-American in Florida, his brief term in Washington and what happened between him and Jeb Bush.

In 1998, Marco Rubio was a city commissioner in West Miami. In 2000, he was elected to Florida’s House of Representatives. Just six years after that, he became the second youngest House Speaker ever – and the first Cuban-American to hold that position. Now he’s a 44-year-old senator in his first term who insists he’s fully prepared for the White House.

Susan MacManus, who teaches political science at the University of South Florida, says Rubio is a risk taker, always looking for an opening, when it comes to his political ambitions. She recalls conversations with Rubio earlier in his career. “He intimated to me that one of the reasons that he decided to seek a leadership post was because he thought that that was the best place in the Legislature to be able to affect policy.”

She said Rubio made a broad sweep to collect ideas for initiatives in Florida, and that he takes credit for implementing at least half those plans at some stage before he moved on to the U.S. Senate.

“Probably the areas where he had the most influence were in some of his ideas about education, and less successful were some of his ideas about tax reform,” she said.

Rubio is not politically aligned with the national Tea Party movement but benefitted from its stimulating voter turnout among older Floridians whose adult children were hurt by the Great Recession, MacManus said. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush and Rubio have both acknowledged providing important help to each other in Florida politics, she said, before the two men faced off in the 2016 primaries. A once-proud mentor, Bush attacked Rubio’s Senate attendance record, saying he should resign because the campaign was keeping him from showing up for work.

Rubio responded sharply that Jeb Bush had supported Sen. John McCain in 2008 despite similar absences and that he was only turning on Rubio because they were rivals for the 2016 nomination.

Marc Caputo, Florida political reporter for Politico, says Rubio correctly inferred that Bush’s advisers put him up to attacking Rubio. “The people surrounding Bush, running his campaign, were just obsessed with Rubio. They took his candidacy personally.” Caputo says getting Bush to go on the attack, counter to his personality, was terrible advice because “you don’t try to get your quarterback to perform plays that he is not capable of doing.”

Florida Republicans were torn between their loyalties, MacManus says. Some want a new face because they “recognize the importance of diversity within the ranks of the Republican Party,” she says. Almost half the registered Republicans in Florida are under 50, she says, a change from when older voters dominated the party.

Manuel Roig-Franzia, a Washington Post writer and author of a biography, The Rise of Marco Rubio, says if Bush’s people were surprised Rubio decided to run for president, “then they would be guilty of a major miscalculation politically.” Rubio has been defying the odds his whole career, says Roig-Franzia. “That’s the reason why you can’t count him out. Even right now when people want to say that Donald Trump has an unstoppable path to the nomination.”

Rubio has made his family’s story a central part of his political identity, Roig-Franzia says. “Early in his career he talked about being the son of exiles who were forced to leave Cuba because of Fidel Castro. And later it was uncovered that in fact it was the people who came to the United States before the Cuban revolution started.” But he says the family did struggle economically and was part of a group in Florida who felt exiled because they could not return to their homeland.

Rubio was born in Miami and lived there as a small child. His father was a bartender, his mother a hotel maid. They moved to Las Vegas, converted to Mormonism while there, but returned to Miami and Rubio became Roman Catholic again.

Creating a misimpression about when his family immigrated did not hurt Rubio politically as much as did his “flip flopping on immigration,” Roig-Franzia says. In 2010, Rubio said a pathway to citizenship was de facto amnesty, but in 2013 he supported a pathway to citizenship, and he has since insisted that it was not amnesty. Backing off his immigration reform package when it ran into Republican opposition left Rubio without a major accomplishment in the Senate.

Caputo says a longtime friend and ally of Rubio in Florida politics, former Rep. David Rivera, has become an embarrassment, coming under investigation for use of political contributions and state money. Rubio has tried to distance himself from Rivera lately, but their friendship is something that could provide attack material for an opponent like Donald Trump.

Peter Schorsch, a registered Republican who donated to Jeb Bush’s campaign and is publisher of FloridaPolitics.com, says Bush supporters in the state seem split 50-50 on whether to back Rubio now because “there are a lot of hard feelings.” Schorsch says traditional attack ads don’t work against Rubio. “He is the Steph Curry of politics,” Schorsch says, referring to the NBA star. While Sen. Ted Cruz has been trying to run to the right of Rubio, Schorsch says there is no ambiguity in Rubio’s conservative positions against abortion, and on taxes and foreign policy. “I think the mistake people make is confusing Rubio’s youth with a lack of conservatism,” Schorsch says. “I like the line that someone said Rubio is an old man’s idea of what a young man should be. And that’s really how conservative he is.”

Caputo says Rubio’s weakness is that he has been giving basically the same stump speech for years and “scrape away that first layer, there’s not much there.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, before dropping out of the presidential race, roughed up Rubio in a New Hampshire debate for repeating memorized talking points.

Roig-Franzia says that Rubio’s lack of successful major legislation is making it difficult for him and his endorsers to answer questions about his accomplishments. “Donald Trump will be able to point at big buildings with his name on it. What will Marco Rubio be able to point at?”


Below is an automatically generated transcript of the conversation. It isn’t 100 percent accurate, but is pretty close. Since it is automatically generated, it may contain errors.