WASHINGTON -- Sen. Marco Rubio is on a breathless rise, a testament to his political skill and demographic appeal that last week saw him delivering the Republican State of the Union response and appearing on the cover of Time as “The Republican Savior.”
But behind the scenes is a relentless, methodical effort to build the Rubio brand, aided by a team of strategists and media handlers positioning the 41-year-old Floridian for an expected presidential run.
They include members of Rubio’s Senate staff and presidential campaign veterans who work for the political committee Rubio formed ostensibly to help elect other conservatives.
Instead the Reclaim America PAC has focused on consultants and building a national fundraising network. Last year, his PAC spent more than $1.7 million, with the vast majority going toward staff and fundraising, and about $110,000 going to other candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“It connotes a machine, someone who is grooming his image for a jump to higher position,” said the center’s executive director Sheila Krumholz.
Rubio’s team plots policy and publicity moves, including his recent foray into the immigration debate. He was among eight senators working on a proposal, but Rubio took them by surprise — and ensured he would be front and center — with a Wall Street Journal piece laying out the framework before the group announced it.
The Rubio machine cultivates the image of a new breed of Republican, youthful, and as at ease talking about Tupac and the Miami Dolphins as talking about budget deficits. At the same time, advisors dole out nuggets to the news media, they aggressively contest even the smallest points in articles.
The political fascination with Rubio has made it easier for his team to build helpful story lines. When he first took office in the U.S. Senate, it was Rubio the humble, political star keeping his head down. That followed with periodic “major” policy rollouts — foreign policy, job creation, the middle class. When Rubio gives a speech, it’s invariably a “major” address. A young assistant is always there to record it on video and take photographs.
“It’s almost like he’s the Backstreet Boy of American politics, a Hollywood creation of what a model political candidate should be,” said Chris Ingram, a Republican communications consultant from Tampa who has been critical of Rubio. “He has to deliver on the hype but from a P.R. perspective, it’s textbook.”
And constant. Last week, Rubio issued 17 press releases. By comparison, former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, another potential 2016 candidate, released three.
Behind the scenes
Rubio’s political inner circle includes PAC employees Heath Thompson and Terry Sullivan, two operatives who made their names in South Carolina’s bare-knuckled political culture and are close with former Sen. Jim DeMint. The hyper-competitive Thompson is a college football fanatic more comfortable in a baseball cap than suit and tie.
For broad messaging strategy, there is the roguishly charming Todd Harris who knows practically everybody in the political media and is never shy about excoriating reporters.
The Senate staff includes Alberto Martinez, who goes back to Rubio’s days as speaker of the Florida House and can anticipate where critics might attack Rubio, and Alex Burgos, another Rubio campaign alum and true believer who pushes back at any hint of negativity in Rubio coverage.