The political rehabilitation of Marco Rubio

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker speaks with Sen. Marco Rubio on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker speaks with Sen. Marco Rubio on Capitol Hill earlier this month. AP

With unexpected swiftness, a mere 48 hours after badly losing the Republican primary in his home state of Florida, Marco Rubio returned to the U.S. Senate. His staff welcomed him in the hallway with a warm round applause, which an aide promptly recorded on video and posted online. Capitol Hill reporters waited for him outside an Intelligence Committee briefing, eager to get a glimpse at an ex-candidate still in political mourning.

Instead, Rubio looked relieved.

He’d lost big. But he found himself suddenly liberated from the unrelenting, 24-hour campaign spotlight, and it showed.

His candidacy had lasted 11 months, yet the attention on his every move had begun when he was elected five years earlier, the man anointed by Time Magazine as “The Republican Savior.” Rubio knew little time in the Senate when he wasn’t a candidate, or a soon to be one — not that he’d ever admit it until now.

“We have more time to dedicate to all this,” Rubio acknowledged in a recent interview with the Miami Herald. “We’re not out in the campaign trail — or getting ready for the campaign trail. And we’re not in the middle of a reelection campaign, either. It’s just 100 percent focused on getting all of this done and giving it your complete attention. And it’s enjoyable.”

With seven months left in his term, Rubio has pointedly devoted himself to being full-time senator.

“He’s responding as a senator from Florida should respond,” said his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson.

He’s responding as a senator from Florida should respond.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

As a presidential contender, Rubio dismissed repeated criticism from his rivals that he was shirking his duty, missing more votes at the timethan any of his colleagues. He insisted he never skipped any votes where he would have made a difference, and maintained that what really mattered was that his office kept handling constituent services.

The reason other candidates kept bringing it up, though, was that polling showed the absentee-senator line stuck with at least some voters. Rubio’s poor showing in Florida, where he won only his home county of Miami-Dade, suggested the senator may have taken some of his constituents for granted, and they punished him for it.

As the Florida primary approaches on Tuesday, and facing long odds with bleak poll numbers, Sen. Marco Rubio crisscrosses his home state in a final attempt to salvage his presidential hopes. The stakes are higher than ever as many believe Florida

A Morning Consult survey released last month found Rubio’s popularity in Florida dropped during his presidential run, and by more than any other senator running for the White House. His favorability in Miami-Dade remains strong, however, according to a recent local poll conducted by a Rubio friend for a private client.

Now Rubio’s trying to make up for lost time — though that’s not how he puts it.

“Really, my goal coming back was to finish strong. I told my staff, ‘We have as much time left in office as Barack Obama does.’” he said. “I got elected to a six-year term, not a 5-and-a-half-year term.”

Asked if that same logic should apply to the term-limited Obama — given that Rubio refuses to meet with the Democratic president’s Supreme Court justice nominee, Merrick Garland — Rubio said it’s not an apt comparison: “He’s appointing people for a lifetime appointment,” he said. “For me, that means a completely different standard.”

Seven weeks into his post-candidacy, Rubio has shown renewed interest in key Florida issues: Everglades restoration, the Zika virus, benefits for Cuban refugees, the Puerto Rican debt crisis. He’s visited local government agencies. He’s given interviews to Florida reporters in the past couple of weeks at a faster rate than he ever did when ran for president, and the headlines have rewarded him: He’s learned to love the Senate. He’s put his nose down to do the people’s work.

“I know that he wants these last months to be very distinguished months,” said Norman Braman, the Miami auto magnate who was one of the biggest investors in Rubio’s campaign. “Without question, he has not put himself in a corner, weeping over his failed candidacy after it was over.”

The turnaround parallels what Rubio did after his lowest point in the presidential race. After choking in a New Hampshire debate against then-opponent Chris Christie, Rubio flew to South Carolina, reporters in tow, and spoke more openly than he had in months. He regained his pep, though the recovery ultimately couldn’t salvage his campaign.

In South Carolina, Rubio’s goal was clear: rebound from a painful electoral loss in time for the next contest. In the Senate, his motivation is less obvious. Why is Rubio so keen on getting legislation passed now?

“I don’t think you have to ascribe motives,” said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat who was friendly with Rubio in the Legislature. “It’s not like he’s got a job that doesn’t demand his attention.”

Inevitably, the speculation turns to the 44-year-old Rubio running for office again. Could he change his mind and run for Senate re-election? (Qualifying doesn’t end until June.) Could he run for governor in 2018? (The early Republican favorite is Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.) What about president in 2020? (And by then, why would a 2016 debate about Zika funding matter anyway?)

Rubio has said he’s not seeking re-election or running for governor. As for 2020 — well, that’s too far off. (“I hope so,” Braman said.)

“I’m just doing my job. I mean, what would they say if I wasn’t doing this? That I went back and coasted?” Rubio said. “Obviously, without the campaign, I have more time on these things that we’re working on, but it was nothing to do with politics or the future. I mean, what am I supposed to do all day while I’m in Washington except work and get things done? It’s not about rebuilding anything.”

What would they say if I

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Perhaps not. But this is Rubio, one of the most precocious political minds in Florida, a man who saw opportunities for himself throughout his career even when others didn’t. He lasted only about a year on the West Miami city commission before jumping to the Florida House of Representatives, where he soon plotted a path to eventually become House speaker. He landed in the Senate after gambling to run against then-sitting Gov. Charlie Crist.

Still, for Rubio, this period feels like a distraction-free breather.

“I’m not out there doing interviews about the election,” he said. “I’m not out there doing interviews as a pundit for the cable networks talking about, you know, who’s going to win or what’s going to happen.”

He said it feels a little like a new beginning — like when he was sworn in in 2011 and made sure to bone up on policy and steer clear of any more “savior” talk — only now he’s got more than five years’ experience to get things done. Late last month, that meant orchestrating a complicated, insider deal that got Rubio an extension on Venezuelan sanctions in exchange for his allowing the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

He failed in his attempt last month to get a vote on a bill to no longer give automatic welfare benefits to all Cuban immigrants, though Rubio said he expects the legislation to gain some traction in the House. Rubio said he is still “not prepared” to confirm Mary Barzee Flores, the local attorney nominated to the federal bench last year, and he won’t specifically say why not.

In the fall, Rubio said he’ll campaign for Republicans in contested races. “At some point in the near future” he says, he’ll have more to say about the Senate candidacy in Florida of his friend Carlos Lopez-Cantera, whom Rubio has essentially already endorsed.

And what then?

Rubio didn’t say. Senate ethics rules forbid him from getting too deep into job interviews, just in case a potential employer might be trying to influence federal policy. If he doesn’t want to become a lobbyist — a problematic title for future campaigns — or to go back to his not-so-glamorous old job as a land-use attorney, there are corporate boards, think tanks, academic positions and media jobs to consider.

“He wants to stay engaged,” said Bernie Navarro, a close Rubio friend and fundraiser. “He’s not going to ride into the sunset.”

As of a week ago, before Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, Rubio said he planned to attend July’s nominating convention in Cleveland. “There’s no reason not to, unless there’s something else going on during that time that I need to do. I’ve been to the last two,” he said.

But that was before every living former nominee except for Bob Dole said they wouldn’t attend — or, for now, back Trump.

When a reporter contacted Rubio’s office to follow up, the senator couldn’t be reached. He was on an official, week-long trip to the Middle East.

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau reporter Michael Auslen contributed to this report.