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The Rise of Rubio

Will a longstanding friendship block his vice presidential prospects?

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Rubio recently reiterated his desire to remain in the Senate to do the job he was elected to do. But he doesn’t have much patience with the claim that he’s unsuitable for inclusion on the ticket.

“Look, I’m not telling you I want to be VP or anything,” he said. “But I’ve always thought—I chuckled when I read an article yesterday. The guy wrote that the only experience I have is being on the city commission. I mean, I’m not telling you that I’m the most experienced guy in the Capitol, but I served nine years in one of the largest legislatures in the country. I was in leadership eight of my nine years. I was majority whip, majority leader, and speaker of the house. We had a $72 billion budget—which is larger than most states. I wasn’t part of the landscaping crew until last week, either. I’m not telling you I’m deeply steeped, but I’ve served in local, state, and federal government. I’ve been an officer of the third-, fourth-largest state in the country. I went through a bruising, battering election with seven televised debates.”

He’s right, and there’s more. Consider: In his primary race against Crist, the National Republican Senatorial Committee conducted extensive opposition research on him; in the general election, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did the same; and, in running against Crist, Rubio was taking on the entire Republican establishment in the state of Florida. Many of the very same Republicans he’d worked with on campaigns and in the legislature went to the Crist campaign with their complaints and allegations about Rubio. It’s safe to assume that virtually all of those reports from Republican insiders made their way into the media as Crist, whose desperation increased with every new poll, flailed away trying to slow Rubio down. The Florida press corps has a well-deserved reputation for toughness, and many of the stories just now making their way onto the pages of national publications have been thoroughly reported and researched by very capable journalists in Miami, Tampa, Tallahassee, and elsewhere.

Rubio, for instance, has repeatedly addressed—if not entirely put to rest—claims that he used a Republican party charge card for personal gain. Rubio says the use of the card was sometimes intentional and sometimes accidental, and that he paid the charges directly to American Express in a timely manner. Given the controversy the practice has generated, he acknowledges that he didn’t handle it well. He says he discusses the issue at length in his forthcoming book.

Beyond that, there are suggestions that Rubio will get caught up in the trial this July of former Florida Republican party chairman Jim Greer. A close ally of former governor Crist, Greer is charged with money laundering, fraud, and four counts of grand theft. Rubio is not concerned. “I had no relationship with Jim Greer. He hated me. But do you think if Jim Greer and the party and those guys had garbage on me they wouldn’t have dropped it during the campaign? It’s all silly talk.”

If there’s baggage remaining from the days before Rubio’s election to the Senate, it is not a central feature of a forthcoming book about Rubio’s life from the Washington Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia. Veteran Florida political reporter Adam Smith of the Tampa Bay Times read the book and reports that supporters of Rubio can “rest easy” because it paints a largely flattering picture of the senator.

“I’m not competing. I’ll be honest with you—it just annoys me. If the worst thing they can say about you is that you don’t have experience—that’s a blessing. I’m not a Rob Portman in terms of experience around this place,” says the 41-year-old Rubio, who notes that with his service on the Intelligence Committee he has “more foreign policy experience than Barack Obama” had when he ran for president.

“The problem,” says Rubio with a smile, “is I look like I’m 35.”

There is another, potentially much bigger problem, however—one that could affect Rubio’s prospects for a spot on the ticket in 2012. His name is David Rivera. Rivera and Rubio are longtime political allies and close friends. They rose together in the world of Cuban-American politics in south Florida. They labored together on political campaigns, worked together in the Florida House of Representatives, and even bought a house and lived together in Tallahassee, the state’s capital, during legislative sessions from 2005 until 2008.

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