By Niall Stanage - 11/20/12 01:20 AM EST
The possibility of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) running for president in 2016 is sending tremors of excitement through Republicans and provoking concern among Democrats.
After all, it’s only two weeks out from Election Day, when Republicans found themselves disappointed by Mitt Romney’s failure to win the White House.
But Rubio’s recent schedule of events — a stop in Iowa, the first caucus state, and a big interview with GQ magazine — has them optimistic about the future.
“We need to have more diverse faces in the Republican Party,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “When you look at the faces at President Obama’s rallies, and you look at the faces at Republican rallies, we do need to do a better job at appealing to all Americans.”
Outside observers like Professor Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida argue that Rubio’s prominence is beneficial for the Republican Party, regardless of whether he ultimately seeks the presidency.
“It’s very good, from the Republican perspective, that he be in the news a lot, because it gives a totally different face to the party,” she said.
Rubio made a trip to the first-to-vote state of Iowa over the weekend, raising eyebrows despite the official explanation that he was merely helping out with Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s birthday fundraiser.
Those close to the Rubio camp pointed out that the Iowa appearance had been organized long in advance of the 2012 election — and they say they believed that Romney would emerge as the victor in that contest.
Still, Rubio had some fun with the idea that many people see him as among the 2016 front-runners.
“I am not, nor will I ever be, a candidate for offensive coordinator of Iowa,” said Rubio. “I know there’s rumors.”
In Rubio’s GQ interview, he discussed his love of hip-hop, mused on the nature of leadership and, more contentiously, declined to express an opinion on the age of the Earth.
“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians,” he said.
The answer sounded to some as if Rubio was going out of his way to appeal to creationist conservatives.
“I doubt if Marco Rubio doesn’t have some sense of how old the Earth is,” Steve Schale, a senior adviser to the 2012 Obama campaign in Florida, said.
But more broadly, Schale acknowledged that Rubio had the potential to be a serious candidate in 2016.
“The biggest challenge of running for president is getting into that first tier so people give you a look. Marco is going to get that look because an element are going to see him as electable and another element see him as a pure conservative. That will put him in tier one, and he is at least going to get in the dance.”
Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who supported Rubio during his 2010 Senate run but did not work for the candidate, offered two notes of caution. He insisted that Rubio was intent on his work as a senator, rather than eyeing the national stage, and argued that it did him a disservice to view him only through an ethnic lens.
“It sells Marco short to say that he is the rising Hispanic star in the Senate. It sells Marco short to pigeonhole him like that. This is a guy with a much broader appeal,” Wilson said.
To Wilson, Rubio’s life story was potent for reasons beyond ethnicity.
“There is a personal nature to the story and a personal nature to the way that he expresses it that really communicates to folks in a very effective and very meaningful way,” he said.
But Rubio’s immigrant tale has also caused some complications for him. Last year, he was accused of having embellished the story of his parents’ arrival in the United States to give the impression that they had fled Fidel Castro’s regime. In fact, Rubio’s parents had come to the United State before Castro came to power.
To critics, the controversy over the story was one of several that could prove to be vulnerabilities for the senator if he takes a step onto a bigger stage. They point to a controversy over the use of a Florida Republican Party credit card during his time as Florida House Speaker. Rubio used the card for significant personal expenses, but said he paid the credit card company when he got the bill.
“In hindsight, it looks bad, right?” Rubio acknowledged in an interview with Fox News earlier this year. “I mean, why are you using a party credit card at all?”
Rubio also drew criticism by recording a campaign robo-call for his friend, outgoing-Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), who had come under investigation by both the FBI and the IRS.
These moves prompt even Republicans to wonder whether Rubio’s luster might dim under the harsh scrutiny of a presidential campaign.
Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told The Hill that speculation about a presidential run is “laughably premature.”
But as Schale, the Democratic strategist, noted, “It’s ridiculously early for Marco Rubio to be visiting Iowa, too.”
Updated at 11:15 p.m.