Last summer, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio quietly visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, and as he walked around, he probably felt the youthful optimism and maybe a shade of commonality.
The Florida Republican is on the brink of announcing a presidential campaign that would project the same transformational appeal as Kennedy, the youngest ever elected to the office at 43 and the first Catholic.
But for Rubio, who would be the first Hispanic and only 45, a more obvious and problematic comparison arises.
Like Barack Obama as a candidate, Rubio is a first-term senator who lacks sweeping accomplishments and is known as much as anything for his powerful rhetorical skill.
“For six years, the right has told America we made a mistake hiring a one-term senator for president. So it is going to be awfully hard to say the GOP should nominate a one-term senator. That’s just the truth,” the widely-read conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote recently.
Counters Rubio: “I’m a senator. I’m in my 40s, and I’m in my first term. I think that’s where the comparison ends.”
In an interview at his office on Capitol Hill last week, Rubio gave every sign he has decided to jump into the race, and an announcement could come next month.
He’s enjoying renewed attention from the news media, campaign donors and Republican activists. Still, the experience question looms, as does the challenge of balancing ambition against the job Rubio was elected to do.
“Marco is obviously a very bright guy. He’s a good candidate,” said Mac Stipanovich, a prominent Florida Republican who, like many in the state, is backing former Gov. Jeb Bush, 62. “But the truth is, to be the chief executive of the most powerful country in the world, he is very inexperienced.”
It’s hard not to view Rubio’s time in the Senate as a carefully planned warmup for this moment. He has built a formidable political team of strategists and fundraisers and proposed an array of policy ideas that amount to a campaign platform.
Those ideas, some of which Rubio has never put into bill form, would take years of unglamorous work to push through legislative channels. The GOP takeover of the Senate provides opportunity, but it comes as Rubio’s attention shifts. Already, he has the worst missed-voting record of any senator.
Some of that is due to family. Rubio’s mother has had health issues, and he’s the father of four. But Rubio, 43, also skipped a week of votes in January for fundraising in California.
He’ll soon return out west and raise money in New York. He’s also starting to make campaign-style trips to early voting states, the frequency of which would accelerate dramatically as an official candidate.
“It’s one of the hardest things we’ve confronted,” Rubio said of the balance, adding that other presidential aspirants, including former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, had the same issues.
Whether voters will care remains to be seen. In 2008, it didn’t hurt Obama, who was only the third sitting senator in history to move directly to the White House.
But some Florida voters have spoken to Rubio about his missed votes. “People read about it in the newspaper, and they don’t like it. You have to explain that the majority of your job is the committee work and the constituent service” — helping people with passport issues, arranging for the mother of a girl with cancer to enter the country, and so on, he said.
A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed only 19 percent of GOP voters in Florida want Rubio to run for president versus 68 percent who want him to seek reelection, though some of that could reflect high support for the campaign bid by former Gov. Bush.
“Being overly ambitious right now could be a negative,” pollster Brad Coker said. “Look at Charlie Crist. His undoing was when he was elected governor and, what, a year and a half into his term, it was clear he wanted to be in the Senate instead.”
Rubio took on then-Republican Crist in the 2010 race and overcame stunning odds, forcing Crist to abandon his party. Florida Republicans dismissed Crist as someone who treated the governor’s office as a mere springboard.
A perpetual climber who has unblinkingly switched positions and political affiliation, Crist is a unique figure. Rubio, by contrast, has thrown himself into tough debates, including immigration, and played a lead role in pushing for sanctions against Venezuela.
“I feel good about the work we’ve done,” he said.
Beyond the Senate
Rubio says he never intended for a long Senate career, though is quick to add it’s an honor and described the institution as “a place that moves excruciatingly slow by design.”
Sitting in a comfortable blue and gold striped chair, he exudes a restless energy, his leg bouncing, slight perspiration on his forehead.
“Sometimes you have to be here three terms before you’re in a position to chair a committee and drive an agenda,” Rubio said.
It’s not yet 9 a.m., but he looks like he’s been cranking for a while. The news is playing on his television and an iPad sits on his desk. He is eager for a committee hearing later Wednesday in which he will tangle with Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran.
“I ran for the Senate because I thought America was headed in the wrong direction,” Rubio said.
“I’ve now been presented with the opportunity to serve this country in an even higher office, not just to confront these challenges but to lead this country in confronting those challenges. So in my mind, it’s more a choice about pursuing the opportunity to do even more than you’re doing now.
“The Senate’s an important place, and you can certainly influence the direction of our country … and in some instances, you can lead on some issues. But in terms of the generational choice before our country — whether we are going to prepare ourselves to embrace the opportunities and confront the challenges of a new century — I think only a president can lead that endeavor.”
Drawing a contrast with the crop of governors that would seek the 2016 Republican nomination, Rubio says his involvement in foreign policy issues gives him a decided advantage.
He is a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees and has traveled abroad, eschewing trips with other lawmakers for solo missions that his office has documented with news releases and photographs.
“I feel very comfortable having a foreign policy debate with anyone in my party or anyone in American politics today,” said Rubio, who, like most Republicans, and some Democrats, sees Obama as indecisive and weak.
Rubio is prepared for the Obama question — he got it during an interview last week on Fox News — and points to his nine years in the Florida Legislature. “I was the majority whip, majority leader and speaker of the House of the third-largest state in the country.”
Obama, he says, was a “back-bencher” in the Illinois Legislature.
“Ultimately, I think the failure of the Obama presidency is not that he only served two years in the Senate before he started running for president,” Rubio said. “The failure of his presidency is that his ideas were just wrong.”
Questions about seasoning are not likely to go away.
“His rivals will certainly bring it up and feed it as a story to reporters,” said Andrew E. Smith, a nonpartisan pollster in New Hampshire. “A skillful candidate can turn it to his advantage, as Obama did in 2008.”
Rubio’s American Dream story, based on his Cuban immigrant parents, is gripping.
“Voters want to get carried away emotionally by a candidate,” Smith said. “The intellectual part is one thing. The experience is another. But you’ve got to have the charisma, the rhetoric to deliver it to voters.”
Republicans have typically rewarded presidential candidates who have been around for a while, but there is a growing sense that this will be a change election — not unlike 2008, when newcomer Obama galvanized the country.
“2016 is the first opportunity Republicans have had in quite a while to be the party of the future, to be the part of a better tomorrow,” Rubio said, “and I hope we’ll take up that opportunity.”
Rubio will be joined on the campaign trail by two other first-term, young senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, and young governors, such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
And though Rubio hasn’t pushed through big legislation, his policy proposals, built around the motif of a 21st century agenda, have been praised in Republican circles. His appeal to middle-class voters would be helped by his modest upbringing in Miami.
He likes to talk of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, as a vestige of the past, but he’s likely also talking about other Republicans, including Bush.
“Can you beat her by finding the Republican version of Hillary Clinton? Or do you run a fresh face against her?” said Craig Robinson, a conservative blogger in Iowa.
“I do hear people say he looks too young,” Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said of Rubio. When aTampa Bay Times reporter traveled through Iowa last month, one woman gushed about Rubio then asked how old he was. “Oh my, he’s a baby,” she said, laughing.
Against it all, Rubio sees a path to the nomination. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 56 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see supporting Rubio.
The next highest was Walker, age 47.
“I’ve met with other candidates for president,” Conway said, “and to a person, I tell them, ‘You have to watch out for Marco Rubio.’”
Contact Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary at email@example.com. Follow @learyreports.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald