He’s campaigned with Joni Ernst in Iowa, cut a TV ad for Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, befriended Jim DeMint in South Carolina and reminisced about growing up in Nevada.
Now Florida Sen. Marco Rubio must figure out how to turn his ties to the nation’s first four primary and caucus states into victories — or at least not failures — in the 2016 Republican presidential race.
In his four years in the Senate, Rubio has strategically built relationships and paid visits to crucial early states in the nominating contest, creating a base of support in case he ultimately decided to run. He has scheduled a campaign announcement for 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.
“I will announce whether I will run for president, re-election to the Senate — or commissioner of the National Football League,” Rubio said in jest Friday in a Nashville speech to the National Rifle Association. There was laughter. The NFL is “probably a little too powerful for me,” added the avid football fan.
Joking aside, Rubio and his team of advisers have long planned for this moment, introducing the freshman senator to a national audience of conservative voters who could create a path for him to win, or at least do well, in a crowded GOP candidate field.
“Assuming he runs for president, we’ll intend to compete all over,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said last week.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published earlier this month showed Rubio trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton nationally in a potential general-election match-up. Though Rubio is viewed favorably by a wide margin among Republicans, surveys at this early stage in the race — especially national ones — matter little. A Quinnipiac University poll published last week showed Rubio, like other Republicans, tied against Clinton in Iowa, with plenty of room to introduce himself to voters who don’t enough about him.
Monday’s event will be the first Miami presidential kick off since Bob Graham’s in 2004, but the Sunshine State won’t play much of a part in Rubio’s early plans. By the time Florida’s primary rolls around on March 15, 2016, the number of potential candidates may have narrowed substantially, depending on how they perform elsewhere.
Rubio toured the early primary states in February to promote his new policy book, American Dreams, and promised to return frequently. He will be in New Hampshire Friday, along with numerous other candidates, for the state GOP’s Republican Leadership Summit.
The two senators who have declared they’re running, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, traveled extensively in the days immediately following their launches. Rubio plans to be back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the potential nuclear agreement with Iran. The hearing will probably get plenty of news coverage — featuring Rubio as a player in foreign policy, which sets him apart from his rivals, though he will have missed work Monday.
He’ll have time to return to Iowa, home to the first presidential caucus. Rubio stayed away from the state in 2013 after he proposed immigration legislation that offended some conservatives because, in addition to beefing up U.S.-Mexico border security, it offered a path to citizenship to millions of immigrants in the country illegally.
Though Rubio now favors drafting piecemeal legislation instead of a comprehensive approach, some conservatives remain skeptical about his immigration position, said Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief of The Iowa Republican news site.
“He’s going to appeal probably to the more mainstream Republicans,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean Rubio can’t bridge the gap between the party’s conservative and centrist flanks, despite the strong appeal of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example, or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, according to Robinson.
“There’s no frontrunner like we had in 2008 or 2012,” he said. “If one of these guys stumbles, it becomes jump ball. That kind of creates an opening for Rubio.”
Rubio ramped up his Iowa travel last year, after throwing his early support behind Ernst, the surprise Republican Senate primary winner who later handily defeated a Democrat in November.
“If Joni Ernst ends up endorsing him and campaigning on his behalf, that could really help him,” said Will Rogers, chairman of the Polk County GOP, which includes Des Moines.
Similarly, Rubio’s political action committee, Reclaim America, spent $150,000 on TV ads backing New Hampshire Sen. Ayotte, who was re-elected. His fledgling campaign has also signed on Jim Merrill, a well-known New Hampshire GOP operative who worked for Mitt Romney in 2012.
In South Carolina, Rubio could leverage his friendship with former Sen. DeMint, an early Rubio Senate backer who is now president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. One of the people running a “super PAC” to benefit Rubio is Warren Tompkins, who is based in South Carolina and headed George W. Bush’s primary campaign there in 2000.
And, in Nevada, Rubio could campaign as a semi-local candidate. He lived in Las Vegas for six years, beginning at age 8, and briefly joined the Mormon church. He still has relatives there.
“I think he has more family in Nevada than he has in Florida,” spokesman Conant quipped.
They will soon be seeing more of him.
McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.