Veepstakes 2012: Rubio leads the pack

This is the first in a series of one-on-one interviews with vice presidential contenders. Next week, John Gizzi profiles Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

When I first interviewed Marco Rubio on April 14, 2009, my initial question was the obvious one for this young, long-shot candidate:

Why wasn’t the Miami lawyer and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives running for the U.S. House or a statewide office, instead of Florida’s open Senate seat? Why, especially when almost all polls showed popular Republican Gov. Charlie Crist handily winning the nomination and the general election in 2010?

“Because I want to be a senator, not those other offices you’re talking about,” Rubio shot back without hesitation. “The Senate is where a committed conservative can make a difference.” 

He also told me that Crist was by no means as popular with the conservative grass-roots primary voters in the Sunshine State as was his predecessor (and Rubio’s political mentor), former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush. In addition, Rubio said, some Republicans resented Crist’s deciding not to run for re-election as governor and instead choosing to run for the seat that became open when incumbent GOP Sen. Mel Martinez retired.

Rubio turned out to be something of a prophet. He rallied traditional conservatives and newer tea party activists to his banner and in short order raised more than $1 million—nearly all in small donations. 

Crist made his own situation among Republicans worse by vetoing a tough measure involving teacher performance pay, which had been passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and opposed by teachers’ unions. 

More dramatically, the governor endorsed the Obama-backed $862 billion stimulus package and, as if to demonstrate his support, publicly embraced the Democratic president during an Obama visit to Florida. Finally, with polls showing Rubio moving ahead of the Republican once thought to be senator-in-waiting, Crist announced he was leaving the GOP to run as an independent.

Crist’s exodus freed up both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and state and Florida county GOP leaders who had stuck with Crist out of party loyalty to join the Rubio bandwagon. 

Throughout the race, the son of Cuban immigrants drew increasingly large crowds and enthusiastic volunteers with his message of unabashed conservatism: strongly pro-life, maintaining the economic embargo on Cuba (“until the end of the Castro brothers and the return of political reform to the people of Cuba”), across-the-board tax cuts such as those he had championed in Tallahassee, opposition to the Obama stimulus package (“the equivalent of a sugar rush”), and outright repeal of ObamaCare.

In the end, it was not even close. Rubio rolled up 48.9 percent of the vote, followed by Crist with 29.7 percent and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek with 20.1 percent.

And what a difference two years makes. Along with fellow freshmen Republican Senators Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.), Florida’s Rubio is considered one of the right’s “bright young men for tomorrow.” Whatever the issue or the occasion in the Republicans’ ongoing war from Capitol Hill against the Obama administration, it is usually to the door of one of those four young conservatives to which the national press first beats a path.

“For president as Rubio’s running mate?”

But, at 40 and a father of four, Rubio stands alone in the Senate in terms of the attention he receives for national office. Because of his charismatic speaking style, his residence in vote-heavy Florida and his Cuban-American heritage, the junior senator from Florida has been the most-mentioned Republican possibility for vice president on a ticket headed by, well, anyone. 

Indeed, one joke making the rounds at cocktail parties of Washington political reporters these days is: “Who do you think will be the Republican nominee for president as Marco Rubio’s running mate?”

After graduating from the University of Florida and the University of Miami Law School, the young Rubio had a quick rise in politics: an internship with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a stint as city commissioner for West Miami, and then election from Florida’s 111th District to the state House of Representatives in 2000 at age 28. He was  selected by colleagues as speaker in 2006 at 35. 

Were Rubio to be nominated and elected vice president this fall, he would have had the most rapid rise in national Republican politics since Richard Nixon, who went from Navy veteran and lawyer to U.S. representative in 1946, senator in 1950 and then a heartbeat away from the presidency in 1952 at age 39.

Except for Ron Paul, the Republican presidential hopefuls have all publicly praised the Floridian and suggested they would not mind having Rubio on their ticket. At his primary eve rally in Orlando Jan. 30, Newt Gingrich said he would pick a conservative as a running mate and added that “the junior senator from Florida sounds pretty good.” (This came less than a week after Rubio, who remained neutral in his home state’s primary, publicly took Gingrich to task for commercials denouncing opponent Mitt Romney as “anti-immigrant.”)

There has been controversy that has dogged the Florida Republican. During his Senate race two years ago, there was a widely reported story that as state House speaker, Rubio charged some personal expenses on the credit card of the state Republican Party, for which “Rubio directly and promptly paid the credit card company what he personally owed,” according to a spokesman.  An internal party audit later cleared Rubio of any inappropriate charges. 

There were also reports that he missed some home mortgage payments. A Rubio spokesman told us Rubio never missed a payment on his primary home in Miami, but missed some payments on a house he co-owns in Tallahassee, which were the result of a miscommunication with the bank which was quickly resolved.

Rubio’s religious faith has also drawn some notice.  A Roman Catholic who regularly attends Catholic Mass in Washington and Miami, he and his family have in the last few years also been attending services at Christ Fellowship, an evangelical Protestant church. For his part, however, Rubio dismisses any talk (and most questions from reporters) as to his availability as a vice presidential candidate on anyone’s ticket—not now, at least. He gently pleads with admirers and the press to simply let him do the job he has and “to just let me be a good senator.” 

But the speculation never stops. Rubio is one of the most in-demand speakers on the Republican and conservative circuits. Last year, he drew an overflow crowd speaking at the Jesse Helms Center for Public Policy in Raleigh, N.C. Earlier this month, the freshman senator drew as large and enthusiastic a crowd as any of the presidential candidates when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C.

GOP pro-immigration

“Probably the best sign that we Republicans are a conservative party is that we proudly say we’re conservative,” Marco Rubio told a small group of reporters just before his CPAC address Feb. 9. “When we fail to do that, we start to lose. And how come liberals rarely admit they are liberal? How come our presidential candidates all say they are most like Ronald Reagan and how come Democrats never say ‘I want to be another Jimmy Carter?’”

My colleagues and I laugh heartily. This is the kind of group Rubio enjoys, one that offers up a stream of questions on policy and—perhaps mercifully to him—avoiding talk of him as a vice presidential candidate.

He focused most of his remarks that morning on the administration’s ruling to require faith-based health care providers to pay for abortion-related and contraceptive services in spite of their religious objections. This is nothing short of what Rubio brands “an assault on the constitutional right of religious expression” and, he adds, “A president Biden would not have done this.” 

The senator went on to cite published reports that Biden and outgoing White House Chief of Staff William Daley both urged the President not to let his Department of Health and Human Services issue the ruling that has created such a furor (and which the White House would partly back down on 24 hours later).

“And if [Obama] doesn’t change his mind, we’ll have to do this ourselves,” he says, underscoring the legislation (S. 2043) he has introduced to upend the HHS ruling altogether. He also noted that one of its first-co-sponsors is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.

“Social issues will never go away,” insists Rubio, “so long as there are strong families.”

Turning to a sensitive area for Republicans, the son of immigrants says: “We are the pro-legal immigration party. There are countless people who come into my office, who have paid fees and waited in line for a year to become citizens the legal way. You’ve got to have modernization of the immigration system and something that works. And you have to have border security, a functional guest worker program and a modernized visa program. Otherwise, the urge to come into the U.S. illegally gets easier to have.”

And, in a not-so-subtle reference to those who say that this position is mean-spirited, Rubio remarks: “Just because you don’t agree with the left doesn’t mean you’re anti-immigrant.”

He then went on to address a variety of other issues. Repeating his long-held commitment to repealing ObamaCare, Rubio said that there are many alternatives to the healthcare crisis, including permitting people to buy health insurance across state lines. But, he insists, “the surest way to replace ObamaCare is to replace Obama.”

Of the current president, Rubio admits he only shook hands with him briefly at a World AIDS Day event and at a White House picnic and says: “He seems like a really good Dad, a really good guy and a really bad president.”

To no one’s surprise, the signature swarm of reporters surrounds Rubio as he leaves to address CPAC and press secretary Alex Conant is forced to play his increasing role of “tough cop.” No one knows where the presidential race is going or what the Republican ticket will look like in 2012. But about Marco Rubio, the safest thing to say is that the attention he receives from the press and from fans at conservative and GOP events is going to continue for a long time.