The Rise of Rubio
Will a longstanding friendship block his vice presidential prospects?
May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Shortly after Mitt Romney won the Wisconsin primary and, in effect, the Republican nomination, I asked a prominent Republican strategist whom he thought Romney would choose as his running mate. He answered without hesitation.
Marco Rubio and David Rivera in January 2008
And whom should he take?
“Marco Rubio,” he responded, in a tone that suggested the answer was obvious.
Not everyone agrees. Skeptics argue that Rubio is too young and too inexperienced. Valid concerns? Perhaps. But not enough to keep Rubio from strong consideration as Romney’s running mate. One thing might be: Rubio’s longtime friendship with Representative David Rivera.
Rubio’s name has appeared on virtually every “veepwatch” list compiled by the media. There’s a reason for that. In late March, Wisconsin talk radio host Charlie Sykes asked Romney about prospective running mates and mentioned both Rubio and Paul Ryan. Romney, the man whose list is the only one that matters, said that Rubio (along with Ryan) was one of a dozen “leading lights in the Republican party who could be part of a national ticket.”
The fact that the de facto nominee would mention Marco Rubio as a possible running mate is rather extraordinary. Just three years ago this month, Rubio was a longshot candidate for the Senate in Florida (the first poll had him at 3 percent) whose shoestring campaign was struggling to raise enough money to enable him to travel around the state to raise more money. Then on May 12, 2009, Charlie Crist, Florida’s popular governor, announced that he, too, would be running for the Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee immediately declared its “full support” for Crist, and top Republicans in the state, including former state chairman and Rubio mentor Al Cardenas, urged Rubio to drop his bid—something he strongly considered.
Rubio ultimately stayed in the race. He won the nomination and then a three-way contest that included Crist, running as an independent after it became clear he would lose the Republican nomination, and Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek. It wasn’t just the fact that Rubio won that was remarkable, but how he did it: Rubio carried
Since his arrival in Washington, Rubio has followed the Hillary Clinton model of conduct for new, high-profile senators. He has kept his head down, studied hard, and mostly resisted the temptation to weigh in on the micro-controversies that get Washington talking. Rubio has focused on big issues. He has devoted much of his time to foreign policy and national security, with seats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Foreign Relations Committee.
In late April, Rubio earned good reviews for a weighty foreign policy address he delivered at the Brookings Institution. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza called it a “crisp and thoughtful tour of the world” notable for its bipartisan character. And in a small off-the-record question-and-answer session over lunch afterwards, Rubio impressed several of the journalists and foreign policy thinkers with his knowledge of the subject matter and his ability to respond to detailed questions with detailed answers.
This is the real reason Rubio is among the first names mentioned in discussions about Romney’s prospective running mate. He is a substantive and articulate spokesman for modern conservatism. He is personable and cerebral, engaging and thoughtful, likable and knowledgeable. The political media focus on ethnicity and geography—he’s Hispanic, he’s from Florida—but if those were the most important criteria, we’d be hearing a lot more about Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diáz-Balart. Rubio is the best communicator in the Republican party today, and no one else comes close.
Because Rubio is such a star, with such obvious promise as a future leader of the GOP, national Democrats are certain to go after him with reckless abandon. It’s the downside to being regarded as the Next Big Thing. As much as Rubio will be compared with other possible Romney running mates, he’ll also be measured against his own potential—an almost mythical version of the ideal vice president.
It’s no wonder that reporters are carefully analyzing every Rubio utterance on his prospects to determine his level of interest. At a recent forum sponsored by National Journal, Rubio made news by strongly disclaiming interest in running with Romney. “I don’t want to be the vice president now, or maybe ever. I really want to do a good job in the Senate.” Moments later, however, the headlines from the event changed after a rare Rubio slip of the tongue. “If in four or five years, if I do a good job as vice president—I’m sorry, as senator—I’ll have the chance to do all sorts of things.”