A year removed from being hailed as the savior of the Republican Party, Marco Rubio's 2016 frontrunner status is questionable and his position in most early presidential polling is middling at best.
That's just fine with Florida's 42-year-old junior senator.
Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have spent months jousting for the Tea Party mantle in the presumed field of Republican hopefuls and leading a parade of potential candidates through early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire. They and some of the others have been rewarded with high poll ratings, news coverage befitting a frontrunner and, in some cases, both.
Rubio and his political team are executing a different strategy, one they believe best positions the senator for long-term success should he decide to run for president.
The former Florida House speaker, just four months into his fourth year in Congress, has avoided travel to the early primary states. He isn't busy jockeying for position. Rather, he has quietly focused on building a political organization that would serve as the basis for a presidential campaign, burnishing his policy and legislative resume, and honing the Image of the sort of consensus Republican who historically has captured the GOP nomination.
Rubio's approach to 2016 has been crafted with one goal: To become the first choice of “many” GOP primary voters and the second choice of “even more.” His advisers envision assembling a solid base of support that prefers Rubio above all others, while attracting the admiration, or at least imprimatur of acceptability, of an even larger group that would gravitate to him if their first choice falls short.
“We have gone to great lengths over the past couple of years to avoid at all costs becoming the flavor of the month,” senior Rubio adviser Todd Harris told the Washington Examiner. “We thought that it was important to take the long view.”
Rubio's strategic self-exile from the early nominating states ends in May, when he is scheduled to travel to New Hampshire to keynote an annual Rockingham County GOP Committee dinner. It will be his first visit to an early battleground in more than a year. In the current RealClearPolitics average of Iowa caucus polling, Rubio sits in 10th place with 4 percent. He polls similarly in the Granite State.
While Rubio stayed away from the 2016 trail, he played a prominent role in writing and passing bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform legislation. It cleared the Senate in late June but stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
In the aftermath of President Obama's 2012 re-election victory, the effort was first seen as a boon to the presidential aspirations of the ethnic Cuban senator with humble roots. Obama beat wealthy Republican nominee Mitt Romney partly because of his strong advantage among Hispanic voters and other minorities, and Rubio's profile and work on immigration reform was among the reasons he was hyped as a GOP savior.
But many conservatives later soured on the bill, and there was little upside for Rubio to appear in early states and risk embarrassing interactions with angry activists.
Otherwise, his conservative bona fides are intact. So is his support among the Republican Party heavyweights who were impressed with the ability of the 2010 Tea Party insurgent to negotiate a compromise with Democrats on a complicated, hot-button issue. They include veteran GOP operatives Wayne Berman, Charlie Black and Dirk Van Dongen, all of whom serve on Rubio’s D.C. steering committee of about two dozen lobbyists and party insiders. Van Dongen chairs the committee.
Committee members have committed only to raising money for Rubio’s 2016 Senate re-election and Reclaim America, his political action committee. But in interviews with a half dozen members, they said a Rubio presidential bid is appealing because he is a mainstream Republican capable of uniting the party and winning the general election. Rubio might be called a Tea Partier because of his staunchly conservative record and because he won his Senate seat by challenging a sitting Republican governor, but they contend the label is a misnomer.
“He’s the real thing,” Black said. “He has the intelligence, credibility and campaign skills to be president someday. Is it this time? I don’t know.”
Supporters argue that his political operation could be the most experienced and professionally run of any of the Republicans mentioned as 2016 contenders. If Rubio decides to make the race, the depth of his fundraising, political and policy shops would enable him to ramp up virtually immediately. For example, his fundraising operation is structured along the presidential campaign model. He could appoint a national finance chairman soon.
The only major complication supporters see is whether former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush runs, which could siphon off organizational support and funding -- particularly in Florida.
Rubio was mentored by Bush but arrived in Washington with few relationships, and his ability to start from scratch and attract and retain top talent is another quality that impresses GOP power brokers.
“All of their body language says they’re positioning for 2016,” a former Romney adviser said of Rubio and his team.