Rubio privately telling donors: I'm running for president

Rubio 2016: Because every generation of Republican voters deserves its own John McCain.

No no, that’s unfair. Rubio’s actually a hybrid of the two candidates from the 2008 election: Young, reform-minded, and racially pathbreaking like Obama, hyper-hawkish and pro-amnesty like ol’ Maverick. I’m glad he’s taking the plunge, as this is wonderful news if you’re already in the “Anyone But Jeb” camp. Which, let’s face it, if you regularly consume conservative blog content, you are.

His basic pitch, according to several operatives and donors who have heard it, is that he is the right messenger (an eloquent, young Cuban-American who can appeal to a diverse array of voters) with the right message (an optimistic plan for American exceptionalism, born of his personal story) for the 21st century. He does not mention Mr. Bush, 62, but the generational contrast is implicit.

And many operatives and donors are giving Mr. Rubio real consideration. The New York Times surveyed the six top contributors — as provided by the Center for Responsive Politics — to Mr. Rubio’s campaign committee, leadership PAC or both over his career. The Times found that three — including Norman Braman, a car dealership billionaire and philanthropist — planned to support him, but that a fourth was with Mr. Bush…

And though he is not expected to make any official announcement until April, he is quietly telling donors that he is committed to running for president, not re-election to the Senate. (During a stop in Las Vegas, Mr. Rubio met privately with Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and major Republican donor. Neither Mr. Rubio nor Mr. Adelson’s team would comment on what the two men had discussed.)

The AP ran a story five days ago about how hard national Republicans were pushing Rubio to skip the presidential race and run for Senate re-election, partly because their chances of holding Florida’s seat are much better with an incumbent on the ballot and partly because it would make things easier for their fair-haired boy Jeb. Either Rubio’s started telling donors he’s running for the White House only very recently or Republican leaders think there’s still a chance they can convince him to change his mind and opt for the Senate instead. No doubt Rubio is a prime target of the “shock and awe” strategy that Jeb Bush has been following with his fundraising blitz, aimed at scaring rivals for the center-right vote out of the race. It worked on Romney, it might work on Christie — but evidently it’s not working on Rubio, the guy who stands to lose most from Bush’s candidacy as Jeb gobbles up Florida’s Republican political talent.

You can understand why Rubio would be willing to take his chances with Jeb, though, even knowing that he’s a heavy underdog. He’s a more marketable version of Jeb. He’s young, he’s a better retail politician, he has no Dubya baggage, he has the same claim on a key swing state that Jeb does, and he might be the only guy in the field with stronger appeal to Latino voters than Jeb has. Returning to the 2008 analogy up top, his position right now is not unlike what Obama’s position was against Hillary early on in the Democratic primaries, when most of the country still didn’t know who he was and she was crushing him in the polls. Obama knew that many Dems, especially liberals, disliked the idea of a Clinton dynasty; he knew he could out-charisma Hillary (who couldn’t?) and he calculated that if he gained some poll momentum and landed a few early big-name endorsements, it might snowball and make him competitive with her. And that’s what happened. Rubio’s in a similar position in many ways — lots of Republicans are queasy about a new Bush dynasty, Rubio should have little trouble out-charming Jeb on the stump, and there’s a fair chance that he’ll score some major anti-Bush endorsements. If he starts piling up votes among Latino Republicans, the donor class’s Jeb Bush Express could grind to a halt and see a mass evacuation. Anyone showing special strength among Latinos will get a hard look from them, knowing how much that demographic hurt Romney in the general election last time.

There are flaws in the Rubio/Obama analogy. Electing the first Latino president doesn’t have the same historical resonance as electing the first black president, and Obama had a big “in” with lefties by having opposed the Iraq war whereas Rubio has nothing major to distinguish himself from Jeb. The big flaw in the analogy, though, is that Obama had the luxury (after Iowa) of running a two-person race against Hillary. Rubio almost certainly won’t get that head-to-head shot against Jeb, where he can present himself as the lone “Not Bush” option available to voters. Rand Paul will hang on for months, and it’s hard to see any early exit for Scott Walker. Ted Cruz could keep going for awhile with tea partiers behind him, especially knowing that the longer the campaign drags on, the greater the odds of a brokered convention are. Can Rubio do to Bush what Obama did to Hillary when he has two or even three other serious contenders who’ll be hanging with them? If you were a Democrat in 2008 and didn’t want to nominate Clinton 2.0, your choice was clear. If you’re a Republican in 2016 and don’t want to nominate Bush 3.0, you’ve got Walker or Cruz or Rand Paul. Or Marco Rubio.

And yeah, yeah, I know: “Conservatives won’t vote for someone who supported amnesty!” I’m beating a dead horse in saying this but everyone onstage at the debates will be supporting amnesty to some greater or lesser extent. There’s not a man in the field as far as I know who’s opposed to legalizing illegals, which is the whole ballgame when it comes to giving them a permanent presence in the U.S. When push comes to shove, Rubio can offer the same BS explanation that Scott Walker’s lately started pushing to absolve his own immigration sins. “Yes, it’s true I supported comprehensive immigration reform,” Rubio can say, “but so did my friend Governor Walker. And like him, I changed my mind once I realized that Barack Obama and the Democrats were dealing in bad faith. They claim to support border security, but when the president acted, he acted only to legalize millions of people here illegally. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and I never will again. I now realize that we can’t trust Democrats to enforce a comprehensive deal, which is why I insist on a ‘security first’ bill going forward.” If you’re willing to buy Scott Walker’s lie on that point to make an otherwise appealing candidate viable on the right, you should in theory be willing to buy Rubio’s. He’s counting on it!

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