If Heaven Shaffer wasn’t so exuberant, you’d think she was part of a script designed to sweeten the image of Sen. Marco Rubio, who came here Friday to sign books and stoke talk he’s running for president.
Shaffer, 22 years old, a Republican and Walmart clerk, arrived more than an hour early and was first in line, clutching Rubio’s book, American Dreams. When the Florida Republican showed up just afternoon, she lurched forward and told him he’d make a good president.
“Oh, thank you!” Rubio replied.
For an hour and a half under the watch of a gaggle of TV and newspaper reporters, Rubio signed books, soaked up encouragement, made small talk — “Today’s Friday the 13th? So far, so good. … Visit Florida, I promise you it won’t snow” — and coolly stood his ground when confronted by an immigration activist.
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He left little doubt he intends to move forward with a run and will stake a claim in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest on Feb. 1, 2016. The “if” in the following seems a formality: “If I run for president,” Rubio told one man, “I’m sure I’ll be back quite a bit.”
The book signing was Rubio’s first in a short tour that will take him to New Hampshire, home of the first primary, and two other early states, South Carolina and Nevada.
The crowd Friday of about 100 people was not overwhelming but the warm personal interactions pleased Rubio’s team and he spent recent days doing interviews with state news outlets designed to lift his profile as the Republican field begins to emerge.
Speaking with reporters, Rubio took a shot at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic front-runner, saying American foreign policy is a “disaster, and she was part of being its chief architect.”
“And she’s offering no new ideas,” said Rubio, whose book is laced with conservative proposals, many aimed at working and middle-class Americans. “At this point she’s offering no ideas and is basically hiding in all the major issues of our day.”
Rubio is enjoying bursts of new attention in recent weeks and the book was timed to coincide with the unofficial start of the 2016 campaign. With continued trouble overseas, his hawkish foreign policy views are gaining more traction, and Rubio sees his experience on such matters in the Senate as his way into a crowded field.
Appraising the foreign policy chops of other Republicans, he told the Des Moines Register this week, “Few, if any, have spent the amount of time on it that I have.”
Rubio also clearly signaled he does not intend on a long Senate career. “Only the president can set the foreign policy of the United States and our national security policy,” he told the newspaper, echoing remarks he has told others in recent days.
Rubio said Friday his decision would come down to “where I think is the best place to serve the country. ... That’s a decision that obviously only me and my family can make so we’ll continue to pray about it and think about and we’ll make a decision soon.”
Challenges lurk. Rubio has worked to put behind him his role in writing the Senate’s 2013 comprehensive immigration bill, deemed amnesty by conservatives, but forces on both sides will not forget.
The immigration activist who confronted him Friday asked if Rubio stood by his bill.
“We can’t pass it,” Rubio said, and referred to doing it piecemeal. He told the man that he wanted to end President Barack Obama’s program that has provided relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were children.
On the other side are conservatives who see Rubio’s involvement as a disqualifier, or at least a reason for caution.
State Sen. Mark Costello showed up to invite Rubio to speak to the legislative caucus but as he walked out, Costello told a Tampa Bay Times reporter, “Some of the immigration issue is a little fuzzy for me. That’s something he has to answer.”
Conversations with Iowans in the past couple of days underline that sentiment and several questioned whether the 43-year-old Rubio has enough experience. Others said they want a new face.
“I’m not that politically astute but the party needs to be looking more at people like him. He’s a young guy, speaks well. It can’t be the old white guy party forever,” said David Krause, 61, a freelance writer who was relaxing with a friend Thursday night at Caribou Coffee in Des Moines.
The buzz in Iowa right now is about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who took command of a recent Register poll. Rubio was ranked 10th out of 16 potential Republicans (which included Mitt Romney, who has since taken himself out of contention), lagging former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was sixth.
It’s early, still, and Rubio’s advisers say his standing will improve as he introduces himself to voters. They are also counting on some goodwill.
Costello took the seat that had been occupied by Joni Ernst, who won election last year to the U.S. Senate. Rubio campaigned and raised money for Ernst and members of his political team helped her effort. Rubio spokesman Alex Conant came in to help Ernst handle the news media. At least a few people at the bookstore noted Rubio’s contribution.
Ila Plasencia, 88, urged Rubio to run for another reason. The country needs more Hispanic leaders, she told him. Afterward, Plasencia disclosed that she is a Democrat. “I vote for the man,” she said, “not the party.”
Contact Tampa Bay Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary at email@example.com. Follow @learyreports.