Op-Ed

Could Rubio be Reagan’s heir?

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio greets voters as he arrives for a town hall campaign stop last week in Dover, New Hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio greets voters as he arrives for a town hall campaign stop last week in Dover, New Hampshire. AP

Dover, N.H. — The century turned from 20th to 21st nearly 16 years ago. But Marco Rubio makes it sound like it happened yesterday — and he’s the first to notice.

A minor quibble, among others perhaps, in the grand scheme of presidential politicking. On the plus side, Rubio’s campaign theme — “A New American Century” — allows him to riff about innovation and youth, while reflecting upon the next great era of promise. It’s an upbeat approach — Jeb Bush might call it “joyful” — that cuts across generational lines.

“I have found the one … the one I can enthusiastically support as I did Ronald Reagan,” declared Johnnie Koromilas, as she introduced Rubio to a town-hall event packed by admirers who stood up when he arrived, applauded his talking points, chuckled at his jokes and rushed him afterward for now-obligatory selfies.

Koromilas said she has personally met all but two of the multitudinous Republican candidates. She decided to support Rubio, she explained, because of his Reagan-like optimism. Reminded that Reagan, elected at age 69, was much older than Rubio, 44, Koromilas said, “Age doesn’t mean anything.” Even so, she preferred to give her own as “mature.”

With Bush stalling and falling, it’s now up to the fresh-faced Rubio to convince fellow Republicans he has enough gravitas to be more than everyone’s choice for VP. Proof of his rising status in the 2016 pecking order can be found in the increased scrutiny of his record of missed Senate votes — nearly 30 percent this year. His explanation — that he’s running for president — doesn’t satisfy opponents or the press. But how it ultimately plays with voters is what counts.

Rubio has neutralized Donald Trump’s bloated bluster with a younger man’s cool amusement. That and his flair for speaking pretty words, seemingly from the heart, make him a threat, especially when the topics are the American dream and his own family history, which includes parents who emigrated from Cuba.

He also has a talent for avoiding direct answers to pesky questions. When an audience member in Dover asked where his campaign money comes from, he joked, “from almost anyone who will send it.” Then he went on to insist that “anyone who wants to donate buys into my agenda. … I don’t buy into theirs.” It isn’t that simple, and voters know it, which is probably why several pressed him on campaign-finance reform.

His message that less regulation will help create the greatest century for the next generation drew some resistance when he was asked about climate control and the price of prescription drugs. But Rubio has a knack for sounding empathetic, even when he’s promoting the usual conservative talking points — and even when he is dodging a question.

At an earlier stop in Manchester, at Internet analytics firm Dyn,

Tyler Craig, 34, asked how Republicans can cut wasteful spending and still look compassionate.

In a lengthy response, Rubio distinguished entitlement spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from “safety-net spending” on the poor. On entitlements, he said, people of his age and younger will have to retire later and accept smaller benefits. “That’s not too much to ask of our generation,” he said. As for safety-net programs, “They don’t cure poverty. … I believe in a safety net. But it can’t be a way of life. It can’t be a trap.”

Then he paused, and to laughter, added: “I’ve got to get that down to a minute.”

Afterward, Craig said he liked Rubio’s answer and the generational pitch. “It’s good to have someone who speaks to our age group. He’s very positive.” And then Craig brought up Rubio’s campaign theme. “When he says the 21st century has the potential to be the greatest, he’s right.”

If you’re Rubio, that’s what you call a good day in New Hampshire.

© 2015 The Boston Globe

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