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Don't underestimate Marco Rubio

"Oh no, America, don't count me out just yet."
"Oh no, America, don't count me out just yet."
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

If all you know about Marco Rubio, who's expected to announce tonight that he's running for president in 2016, is that he appeared on national television and took several long draws from a water bottle during the 2013 response to President Obama's State of the Union, you're severely underestimating him.

Rubio is a charismatic senator who has impressed even some Democrats in the Senate since he took office — plus crowds of Iowa primary voters and deep-pocketed Republican donors in recent months.

The Republican establishment has been bombarded with a "shock and awe" campaign to cast Jeb Bush as the frontrunner for the party's nomination. And that's cast Rubio — another Florida Republican with Latino appeal and skepticism from the base — into the shadows as an also-ran.

But in conversations with conservative policy experts and Democratic Senate staff who've worked with Rubio on legislation, and Republican funders and local officials who've seen him in action on the campaign trail, one thing is clear: even a lot of people who aren't supporting Rubio for president think that, both as a policy mind and a political talent, he is a force to be reckoned with.

marco rubio gang of eight

Why is this man smiling? (Chris Maddaloni/CQ-Roll Call)

"There were people crying in the crowd that night"

First things first: Marco Rubio gives a hell of a stump speech, and has tremendous personal charisma. One Republican fundraiser — who's supporting another candidate — calls Rubio "an absolute natural." When I asked the fundraiser about Rubio's appeal, the response was, "Have you ever met him?"

He's got the benefit of a compelling biography: his parents emigrated from Cuba to make a better life in America, with his father working as a hotel bartender and his mother working as a cashier and housekeeper. But a great backstory does not a great politician make. It's Rubio's ability to turn that backstory into a parable of the American dream that can really capture a room. When Rubio spoke at an RNC event in Florida in March, two sources told reporters that "even the wait staff was rapt."

"He's a happy conservative," says the Republican fundraiser. "The American public, I think, is much more responsive to happy people — whether they're liberals or conservatives — rather than dour, dark people." With other Republicans in the field including Ted Cruz, whose speeches have included the line "The world is on fire," Rubio is a welcome change of tone.

Even when faced with a hostile crowd, Rubio's shown the ability to win them over by the end of the speech. The attendees at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference are exactly the sort of grassroots conservatives who most distrust Rubio because of his work on the 2013 Senate immigration bill — when a straw poll was taken at the end of the weekend, Rubio got less than 3 percent of the vote. But when he spoke to the conference, he warmed up a sleepy early-morning crowd to several rounds of applause — and when he left the stage, he got a standing ovation.

Where it really matters if Rubio can win over the base is in early primary states like Iowa, where Rubio paid particular attention before officially launching his campaign. Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann says that to a certain extent, he'll be starting at zero: once candidates officially declare, he says, "There's an element where they're starting out equal. And then they have to do the retail politics, the chicken dinners." And Kaufmann himself certainly isn't making any endorsements before that happens. But on the eve of the campaign, he's seeing Iowans showing signs of interest, if not yet support, in Rubio: a kind of "generic buzz."

Marco Rubio crowd

Even before he was elected to the Senate, Rubio certainly had a way with a crowd. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

One reason: Rubio took a big risk last year by endorsing Joni Ernst in a relatively crowded Republican Senate primary. The risk paid off. Ernst won the nomination and the Senate seat, and has acquired some star power of her own — like Rubio, she was tapped to give a State of the Union response (in 2015). And Rubio, in the words of Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann, "looked bold. He looked like he had an early sense of leadership."

In October, Rubio headlined a large fundraiser for the Scott County Republican Party, drawing several hundred local Republicans. Scott County GOP chair Judy Davidson says while the annual dinner usually attracts big names, 2014's affair was the best attended she's seen. And the crowd wasn't disappointed.

"There are still people today — and I can't say this about a lot of events — that will still talk to me about the speech he made over four months ago at Scott County," says Kaufmann. "There were people crying in the crowd that night. I hadn't really ever seen anything quite like it at a political event before."

He's also turned in some impressive performances for Republican donors. After Rubio appeared (along with Rand Paul and Ted Cruz) at a summit convened by the Koch-coordinated Freedom Partners network, an informal straw poll ranked him first out of five potential Republican candidates. The straw poll victory doesn't come with guaranteed money, and the Kochs aren't expected to unify their network behind a single candidate — but again, the straw poll shows they're paying attention. And it wasn't the first time Rubio was the standout at a fundraising event. When Rubio can get in a room with people, he makes an impression.

That's an especially valuable skill to have at a point in the campaign where, as Nicholas Confessore and Maggie Haberman report for the New York Times, many Republican donors are "chafing" at the presumption that they'll be loyal to Jeb Bush. Confessore and Haberman report that some donors are deliberately staying uncommitted or looking for other candidates to support — and many of those donors may well have witnessed one of Rubio's recent star turns, or might witness one soon.

Rubio "has actually worked at being a senator"

The donor class isn't just interested in Rubio because he gives good speech. He's developed a reputation for serious policy thinking on the right — a development the National Journal has called "Ryanization," after previous Republican wonk-crush Paul Ryan. That's come through in Rubio's workings in the Senate, where his high absentee rate and the longstanding expectation that he's running for president belie a surprising fact: Marco Rubio has become a serious senator.

marco rubio binders

See? So serious! (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty)

"A lot of shiny objects come through the Senate, kind of use it as a stage," says the Republican fundraiser. "Marco Rubio came to Washington and has actually worked at being a senator. He's into policy. He goes to committee meetings. He knows his subject." Multiple sources praise him for being interested in "areas where public policy can make a difference," in the words of conservative policy thinker and National Affairs editor Yuval Levin (who's worked with Rubio on several issues). That puts Rubio in line with Levin's camp of "reform conservatives" who are trying to bring a proactive policy agenda to the Republican Party.

On education, for example, Andrew Kelly of the conservative American Enterprise Institute notes that legislators often focus on "very basic tweaks to the existing model that frankly, from where I sit, aren't going to change much." And Republicans have often struggled to talk about the issue. Rubio, according to Kelly, is willing to work on "important, forward-thinking ideas that not everybody has been eager to take up" — like working with Democratic Senator Mark Warner on loan repayment. Kelly credits him with showing a path forward for the Republican Party as a whole.

"He will bring people in to talk about policy, just to sit around the conference table in his office, when he's not working on a bill — just things he wants to know more about," Levin says. "That's not unheard of for a senator, but it's unusual."

When Rubio does decide to work on legislation, he's chosen interesting partners. He's worked with fellow Tea Party wonk Mike Lee on his new tax plan, but he's also proposed an expansion of the wifi spectrum with Cory Booker and efforts on educational funding with Ron Wyden. And while Booker is himself a young and ambitious senator who few people believe wants to stay in the Senate, Lee and Wyden have both developed a reputation for caring more about putting bills out there than they do about getting credit.

Furthermore, he's been much more personally involved in working on legislation than the typical senator. "They have large staffs, and a lot of the time you just work with staff, and the senator comes in at the end," Levin says. "Rubio seemed to be very involved at every step."

Even Democratic offices Rubio has worked with have come away impressed with the depth of his policy knowledge. "He would have conversations with staff that met them on their level," says one Democratic staffer who's worked with Rubio on legislation. "Staff usually have a deeper knowledge of the issue, and sometimes it's the staff who will kind of nod and then explain later, 'This is what you really meant.' I don't want to overstate that, but I think that in a couple of instances, he was able to walk through a complicated problem with staff in a way that was impressive."

What is most impressive to Levin, however, is Rubio's ability to translate policy arguments into terms that would make sense on the floor of the Senate — or during a stump speech. "He tends to take what people give him as really broad abstract policy arguments, and try to translate them in his own mind into circumstances that people face — whether it's bringing up stories of people he actually knows, or thinking through people in [hypothetical] situations," he says. "Politicians like to do that — they like to have that in their speeches — but I think there are people who are very good at that telling of stories, and there are people who are good at thinking about policy in the way that policy experts do. There are not that many people who are capable of crossing the street."

But is he presidential?

Frankly, that description sounds awfully reminiscent of Bill Clinton. And Levin remarks that Rubio's process, of bringing in experts to talk about ideas in groups and "be in the middle of a conversation," is more reminiscent of something he's seen in the executive branch than among senators.

But what Levin thinks is a strength of Rubio's is something most pundits consider his biggest liability: has he integrated his political talent and his policy skills well enough to succeed in a presidential campaign?

Marco Rubio children

Definitely not presidential-level integration. But definitely presidential-level cute. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call)

Practically nobody would consider Marco Rubio a frontrunner for the Republican nomination. And this question about integrating politics and policy is a big reason why. To many, Rubio comes off as young and inexperienced — the policy gravitas he shows in Senate conference rooms doesn't necessarily come out in public. And there are big questions about whether he can make space for himself in a field that includes both Bush, his former mentor, and a slew of other candidates like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz with much more credibility with the conservative base. (It's for this reason that some observers think Rubio's best hope is for the VP spot on the ticket, particularly if Walker wins the nomination.)

The Democratic Senate staffer thinks Rubio's talent can't make up for his inexperience. "His ability to do the politics and the policy at the same time needs a lot of work. And that's not really a criticism. It's just that it's going to be harder for him to navigate the presidential politics. The presidential primary won't reward a lot of the skill set that we saw in that room" working on legislation.

That's exactly where Rubio fell short during his work on the Senate immigration bill in 2013. Rubio certainly made an effort to reach out to the conservative base when the bill was introduced, doing regular appearances on talk radio to make his case. But some observers think he failed to anticipate just how angry conservatives would be with the bill, and how long they'd stay angry. Others think he needed to do a better job of explaining why he stopped supporting the bill after it passed in June 2013 — a move that looked like Rubio was capitulating to the base, too late to restore their trust.

It's a long, long way from the "generic buzz" that Rubio's generated in Iowa and at donor retreats to building a base of support in a crowded primary campaign. But the "generic buzz" isn't nothing. The people who are going to play a role in the process of picking a Republican nominee in 2016 are paying attention to Marco Rubio. Even if his run doesn't succeed and he has to return to his surprisingly successful Senate career, he's sending a message: the rising-star reputation he had when he was first elected was justified, and he's going to remain a politician to watch.

CORRECTION: This article originally said that Rubio gave the 2011 State of the Union response. It was 2013. We are sorry.

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