Marco Rubio is the Republican presidential field’s all-star newcomer, who looks great on paper and has limitless potential — but he’s also untested, unproven and unlikely to vault to the head of the crowded pack anytime soon.
Rubio, who this week entered the presidential race, probably has until late summer to start moving out of single-digit poll numbers. He ranks seventh among a dozen major Republican contenders, according to the average by RealClearPolitics, an independent political news organization that compiles polling data.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker top this congested field, at about 17 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
But polls this early in the campaign rarely mean much. At this point in 2007, leaders included former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for Republicans and Hillary Clinton for Democrats. Barack Obama was far back.
Voters in early primary and caucus states, notably Iowa and New Hampshire, usually start paying close attention in late summer. And this year, two August events are likely to thin the field: the first major debate, in Ohio, and the Iowa straw poll.
In the meantime, insiders are taking Rubio seriously, for at least three reasons:
▪ His resume is political gold. At 43, the Florida senator is part of a new generation of political leaders. He’s the son of Cuban immigrants, telegenic and well-spoken.
▪ He’s played well in Iowa. Rubio was an early supporter last year of Joni Ernst, when she was a lesser-known underdog seeking the U.S. Senate seat she subsequently won. “He got a lot of chits from that,” Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said.
▪ He’s able to raise a lot of money. At the January California meeting of major Republican donors, he was one of several potential presidential candidates to appear — and he won an informal straw poll.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, has Rubio in his top tier, along with Bush and Walker.
“He has all the elements, theoretically, to make it to the nomination and do well in the fall,” Sabato said. “He has charisma, monetary support — he could use more, but he has enough. He has Hispanic connections, and he represents one of the mega-states.”
Beyond that: “We keep hearing good things from people who have talked with him in a private setting. He tends to bowl them over.”
Rubio’s big challenge is the same one that’s facing the dozen or so other potential candidates barely known by the public. Under the intense spotlight, they make gaffes, or something in their backgrounds becomes fodder for critics.
Rubio’s had a taste of that, fumbling an attempt to reach a water bottle during his State of the Union response speech on national television in 2013.
He’s also going to have to keep explaining the conciliatory immigration position he advocated in 2013 and then backed away from.
Until then, Rubio was the darling of the nation’s conservatives, but many started to view him skeptically when he pushed a bipartisan overhaul of the immigration system that the Senate passed in 2013. It stalled in the House of Representatives.
He’s since said he learned a valuable lesson about urging a revamp of immigration laws before the nation’s borders are secure.
Most ominously, he faces the Jeb Bush factor. Voters will see the men as having similar political backgrounds, and the two will be drawing money and staff from the same sources. It’s a tough call as to who will prevail.
“Rubio won’t have the executive experience Bush will point to, but Rubio has been in the political arena more recently,” said Christopher Budzisz, director of the Loras College Poll in Iowa.
Somehow, Rubio has to separate himself. “He has to become Bush without the Bush name,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which surveys New Hampshire voters.
Rubio’s best chance at breaking out is to sell his biography. His parents came to America from Cuba in 1956 with little money, no connections and limited education. They worked service-sector jobs, as a bartender and a maid, and raised four children — all of whom are now living the American dream, he’s said.
“For me, America isn’t just a country,” Rubio told a conservative gathering in February. “It’s the place that literally changed the history of my family.”
He served in the Florida House of Representatives, including a stint as speaker, before undertaking a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate, winning in 2010.
As he runs for president, Rubio is expected to follow the lead of Ernst, who soared by stressing her resume. She reminded voters she’s an authentic Iowan, an Iowa State University graduate and a military veteran.
Rubio’s camp could stress his background, and it might work. “Position him in a highly biographical way,” said Budzisz, “and let that narrative drive his candidacy.”