Sen. Marco Rubio is gambling that 2016 is his moment

“He’s putting all his chips in, but I like this play,” said Craig Robinson, the former head of the Iowa Republican Party. “The field has front-runners, but they’re weak front-runners. If one of these guys stumbles, all of a sudden it’s a jump ball, and Marco is going to get a lot of looks.”…

“The Republican Party has to modernize, and Rubio is in that sphere of folks pushing to do that,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said. “He’s going to focus on outreach and bringing in new voters. He has a real opportunity to build on that traction he’s getting with donors and turn it into traction with new voters.”…

“I take him at his word that this is not just about the political landscape,” said Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “It’s about looking at the field and determining whether there’s anyone else offering a big perspective, bold redirection for America, and a conservative message compelling enough to take up against the Hillary Death Star.”

His track record of youthful defiance inevitably draws comparisons to an object of Mr. Rubio’s disapproval: Mr. Obama, a former state legislator two years into his first term in the Senate when he ran for the White House.

As they prepare for the presidential campaign, Mr. Rubio’s friends find themselves reaching, sometimes awkwardly, for the Rubio-Obama analogy themselves.

The politics are different, they insist, but the lessons are much the same.

“Talk about cutting the line,” Nelson Diaz, a former aide to Mr. Rubio, said of Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign.

“It happened for Barack Obama,” said Mr. Arza, the friend of Mr. Rubio. “And it could happen for Marco Rubio.”

For a Republican primary electorate that liked Mitt Romney’s policy stances but wished he were more charismatic, less plutocratic, more authentically conservative and less distasteful to the fast-growing Latino demographic, well, a Cuban-American Tea Party darling with working-class roots and rare magnetism makes a lot of sense. There’s been a sense in Washington that Rubio missed his moment ever since the bipartisan immigration reform he was pushing — his one real deviation from conservative Republican orthodoxy on foreign or domestic policy — ran aground on Capitol Hill. But as he has often told aides when the buzz has been in his favor, the flavor of the month can change in a hurry…

Rubio and his team do not like to talk about strategy, but in any case, the political calculus of giving up a Senate seat to seek the brass ring was not as painful as it sounds. Even if Rubio doesn’t win the nomination, he could well end up on the Republican ticket. Even if he ends up unemployed in 2017, he can run for governor in 2018 with a Republican-friendly mid-term electorate. He still has four children at home, but his wife Jeanette has always supported his ambitions. Most of all, though, Rubio concluded that he could win. He has never been afraid to run from behind — as a twenty-something knocking on doors to ask his neighbors to vote for him for West Miami commissioner, as an unknown challenging a well-known one-time TV reporter for state representative, as a back-bencher hoping to become speaker of the Florida House, and as a Senate hopeful supposedly embarking on a political suicide mission.

“Everyone always says it’s impossible, and then Marco does it,” says Rebecca Sosa, who was mayor of West Miami when Rubio first ran for office and now chairs the Miami-Dade county commission. “Some people call it a gift. I call it a blessing.”

For Rubio, though, a White House bid is the eject button. “He’s frustrated with the fact that the Senate doesn’t do anything,” auto billionaire Norman Braman, who will provide major financial support to a super PAC supporting Rubio, tells National Review. “They don’t get anything done.”

Rubio’s frustration with the Senate, long an open secret among his colleagues, has personal and political aspects. The freshman lawmaker “feel[s] guilty” about the amount of time he spends away from his young family in Miami, as he wrote in his memoir. The job doesn’t pay particularly well relative to what Rubio could make in the private sector. Democrats have thwarted most of his major legislative efforts, and his one big attempt to reach across the aisle, the Gang of Eight immigration bill, cost him support among the same tea-party voters who had swept him into office.

When combined, all of these nagging issues make the decision to leave the Senate behind and hit the campaign trail an easier one for Rubio. And while no one in Rubio’s camp is focused on it right now, an attractive plan B exists should he fail to win the White House: “If he loses, he’ll run for governor” in 2018, a Florida Republican operative predicts.

According to an average of 2015 CBS News surveys, 38 percent of Republican voters say they could support Rubio, compared with just 17 percent who say they couldn’t. The margin (+22 percentage points due to rounding) between those puts Rubio right alongside Bush and Walker. In other words, Rubio is up with the top candidates again. In a campaign in which no one is consistently polling above 15 percent, Rubio remains a candidate who looks like he can be a lot of people’s second or third choice…

Which brings us back to Rubio’s path to the GOP nomination: It looks a lot like Walker’s — pulling together conservative and establishment Republicans. Neither Rubio nor Walker has the appeal with moderate and liberal Republicans that Bush does at this moment…

So while the press usually lumps Rubio and Bush together because they’re both from Florida, Rubio and Walker are more likely to be in direct competition. Current polling aside, Bush’s bumper sticker reads something like “Very electable, and kind of conservative.” Rubio’s and Walker’s read “Conservative, and electable.”

Rubio is the perfect second choice for GOP voters. Though he isn’t leading in polls, many Republicans say they’re willing to consider him and very few rule him out, compared to most of his rivals. All he needs is for other candidates who inspire more passion to falter and their supporters to coalesce around him, and he could be set to take on Hillary Clinton.

Rubio’s support right now is decent but not stunning—in RealClearPolitics’s average, he’s at 7.3 percent, better than much of the field but behind Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee. (Cruz and Paul have both benefited from recent leaps after declaring their candidacies.) Many of these candidates have extremely motivated supporters, but each of them has apparent limitations. Bush’s record is more moderate than many Republican primary voters, and he’s taken flak for his stances on Common Core and immigration. Walker has never run a national campaign and is under fire for flip-flopping. Cruz and Paul are both far enough outside of the political mainstream that they’d likely have to cobble together unprecedented coalitions to win. Carson is still largely a cipher and has never run a race. Huckabee’s culture-warrior persona seems to limit him.

The result is that while Rubio may not inspire the same rabid loyalty that Ted Cruz does, or marshal the establishment backing that Jeb Bush can, his ceiling is much higher than the rest of the field.

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) will lament that “too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the twentieth century” when he announces his presidential campaign later this evening, a clear jab at Hillary Clinton that also functions as a knock on his one-time ally, Jeb Bush.

“Yesterday is over, and we are never going back,” Rubio will say, according to excerpts of his speech released by the campaign. “We Americans are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future. Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past. We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them.”

In interviews with multiple Republicans familiar with Rubio’s strategy — including senior advisers, as well as donors and consultants who have been courted by his team — the candidate’s youth was repeatedly identified as a key 2016 selling point, and one that could help distinguish him from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the early favorite among GOP elites.

Rubio, said one adviser, will not be “competing for who can be the whitest, oldest rich guy” in the Republican field. Instead, they will cast him as a symbol of America’s future — a son of working-class immigrants, whose fluency in both Spanish and contemporary pop culture sets him apart from the flabby, boomer-built political establishment.

Eager to maintain the optimism that has long permeated Rubio’s political identity, his team will work to keep direct attacks on fellow Republicans to a minimum for as long as possible. They are particularly wary of blasting away at Bush, since the former governor has been widely portrayed in the media as Rubio’s “mentor” — a characterization they contest — and they worry that any explicit attacks from their campaign would play in the press as a personal betrayal by an overly ambitious protege. Instead, Rubio’s team will seek to draw generational contrasts with Bush in the primaries by using Clinton as a proxy target.

Six years after the movement’s initial rallies, marches, and demonstrations, Tea Party activists feel let down and betrayed by their native son.

“I’m through with him. He will never get my vote. ‘Disappointed’ would mean that he has an opportunity to restore his credibility, and there is no opportunity for that,” said KrisAnne Hall, an attorney and Tea Party activist from north-central Florida. “The overwhelming perception is that Marco Rubio is not a Tea Party candidate.”…

“Once he got into Washington, he had his sights set early on higher office,” said Jason Hoyt, a Tea Party organizer from central Florida. “He surrounded himself with people who were going to help him navigate Washington to get there, and in that process he disconnected from his base.”…

“We were hungry for leadership on our principles and values, but it didn’t come from Marco,” Hoyt added. “I thought it would.”

The challenge for Mr. Rubio is heightened by the first two nominating contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, which are better understood as factional winnowing contests. The Iowa caucuses are deeply conservative — 47 percent of caucus-goers in 2012 identified as “very conservative” — and even more evangelical: 57 percent identified as born again or evangelical Christians. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is among the most moderate contests in the country: 47 percent of New Hampshire primary voters were self-identified moderates four years ago. It is not surprising that a candidate with broad but shallow appeal, like Mr. Rubio, has struggled to gain a strong foothold in either state…

Mr. Rubio has yet to prove himself an exceptional candidate. In today’s digital era, one would expect truly exceptional candidates to distinguish themselves fast. Mr. Obama, after all, already held 25 percent support according to polls by this time eight years ago. Mr. Rubio’s 6 percent pales in comparison, and it’s less than the amount held by all but one of the 13 candidates who have won their party’s nomination since 1980. The one exception, Bill Clinton, faced a weak field in a late-developing race.

Mr. Rubio is not a stealth candidate. He is well known and has had ample opportunities to earn the trust of Republican voters. He might be in third place in his own home state. At a certain point, one wonders whether he is like the first-round draft pick who doesn’t make the All-Star team after four years. His form might look perfect, but, for whatever reason, he just doesn’t perform the way many thought he might. Fans can be forgiven for continuing to hold out hope that he might break out. No one would be stunned if he ultimately did so, but maybe it’s no longer the likeliest outcome.

But there’s an alternative, similarly plausible future:

Rubio delivers his trademark rhetorical brilliance on Monday night, but the world is still reacting to Clinton’s entry into the race a day before. Being overshadowed by a better-funded candidate with a bigger name is a sign of things to come: Behind the scenes, Bush vacuums up Rubio’s would-be supporters in Florida and his would-be establishment donors, advisers, and voters nationwide.

Evangelicals give their votes to Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Santorum. And even among the more secular segments of the GOP base, voters can’t forgive Rubio for his dalliance with “amnesty”—a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Rubio keeps giving great speeches, but they can’t rise above the noise created by better-funded candidates, and so, though he’s speaking powerfully, he’s also shouting into the wind. Rubio Nation is an apparition, Rubio Island is the reality, and the once ascendant candidate limps out of the primary and onto the sidelines—having given away a promising Senate career without ever sniffing a shot at the White House.

Marco Rubio stands alone as the candidate best prepared to articulate a conservative message in a way that will inspire and actually teach people who aren’t already conservative why conservatism is the best philosophy to help them achieve the American Dream — that there is, as Arthur Brooks has famously argued, a moral case for capitalism.

As a cosmopolitan conservative, Rubio also has the potential to appeal to people — urbanites, Millennials, etc. — who might not even know they have deep-seated conservative instincts. These people reflexively reject conservatism because they don’t think of it as a philosophy, but rather as a manifestation of cultural signaling. They can’t imagine belonging to a Southern party that looks and sounds like, say, George W. Bush…

Ultimately, Rubio is unparalleled in terms of his ability to eloquently articulate conservative philosophy. And putting aside the obvious fact that any nominee must be qualified to govern (and I think he clearly passes that test) one could certainly argue that there is nothing more important that Republicans should be looking for in a nominee. I’ve been in the room when Rubio speaks — even a cynical scribbler who’s heard a million speeches feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He gave the best pro-life speech I’ve ever heard at the Susan B. Anthony dinner a few years back. And just this March in Palm Beach, he talked about how he comes from “extraordinary privilege” in a way that would make people who would never consider themselves social conservatives to rethink some of their basic assumptions about the role and responsibility of government.

Marco Rubio has the chance to be a once-in-a-generation kind of politician who challenges Americans to think differently about conservatism, and potentially reorders the political universe. The question is, do Republican primary voters see this – or are they too angry to even care?

When asked if Rubio believed he is the most qualified candidate to be president, he said: “I absolutely feel that way.”

“We’ve reached a moment now, not just in my career, but the history of our country, where I believe that it needs a Republican Party that is new and vibrant, that understands the future, has an agenda for that future,” Rubio said, “and I feel uniquely qualified to offer that. And that’s why I’m running for president.”

Via the Free Beacon.