Rubio: The man who would be veep

The battle for the Republican presidential nomination is just heating up. But the choice of running mate is as good as settled, at least if the Beltway buzz is to be believed.

Many party insiders feel that the attractions of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) for the second spot on the ticket are irresistible.

“Right now, he is head and shouders above everybody else,” Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson told The Hill. (Wilson supported Rubio during his 2010 Senate bid, but did not work for the campaign.)

Garlands have been hurled Rubio’s way with conspicuous frequency in the past few weeks.

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“Rubio has the most important ingredient of any leader: vision,” conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote.

Former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen last week contrasted the “depressing” performance of the Republican presidential candidates on foreign policy with that of Rubio. The Floridian recently “stepped forward to do what the other candidates should have: lay out a clear foreign policy vision,” Thiessen wrote on his Washington Post blog.

Thiessen and Thomas were reacting to two major speeches.

The first came late last month at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. There, Rubio laid out a worldview that sounded strikingly magnanimous.

“Conservatism is not about leaving people behind,” he said. “Conservatism is about empowering people to catch up, to give them the tools at their disposal that make it possible for them to access all the hope, all the promise, all the opportunity that America offers. And our programs to help them should reflect that.”

Rubio turned his attention to foreign policy last Tuesday, with an address at the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina. Though the speech assailed the Obama administration, it also put a wide stretch of water between Rubio and the GOP’s paleoconservative wing.

“If we refuse to play our rightful role and shrink from the world, America and the entire world will pay a terrible price,” he insisted.

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Rubio seemingly ruled out being part of a presidential ticket next year when, during an appearance on “Meet the Press” in May, he told host David Gregory: “I won’t consider it. I don’t want to be the vice president of the United States.”

Still, whether those denials of interest would remain as firm if he were asked to be on the ticket is an open question. Would he really turn down such a request, which would surely be accompanied by beseechings that he had a duty to help his party?

“It would be difficult to say no, especially if someone made the argument that you could be decisive in a number of key states,” said Wilson.

Rubio is a gifted orator. The narrative of his life, rising as the son of hardworking immigrants, resonates widely. Superficially — but importantly — he is telegenic, young, has a discernible sense of humor and a taste in music that extends to rap and hip-hop.

“He has the quality of a young, suburban father,” conservative commentator and National Review blogger Reihan Salam told The Hill. “There are many ways in which he appears very ‘normal.’”

The senator’s mainstream appeal has led to him becoming a talking point far beyond the usual Washington-centric forums.  His name popped up out of the blue earlier this month on the popular podcast by sports journalist Bill Simmons, when a guest abruptly announced, “Rubio is a rock-solid lock [for a vice-presidential nomination]. You can take that to Vegas. He’s 1-5.”

Rubio’s ethnicity is, and will continue to be, a major focus. For a party that has struggled to win minority support — and is particularly concerned about its failure to gain traction with the fast-growing Hispanic population — Rubio has a potent appeal.

GOP strategist and Univision analyst Hector Barajas notes the mere fact that Rubio can speak English and Spanish with equal fluency is a big advantage. More broadly, he added, the senator “is someone who can have a kinda ‘family conversation’ with the Latino community.”

A 2012 ticket that included Rubio as the running mate “ would be good for our community and good for our party,” Barajas said.

The relationship between Rubio and the Hispanic community is not without complications, however. For a start, Cuban-Americans have tended to be somewhat discrete from the broader Hispanic population, and have traditionally skewed heavily Republican. On that basis alone, Rubio’s appeal to centrist or left-leaning Hispanics might be more muted than some expect.

Rubio has also cleaved to positions on illegal immigration that are little different from most of his Republican comrades — and are antithetical to advocates within the Hispanic community. He opposed the DREAM Act, which would allow illegal immigrants who had come to the United States as minors to become legal residents, subject to a number of conditions.

University of South Florida professor Seth McKee draws an intriguing parallel regarding the tension between Rubio’s identity and his political positions.

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“It’s like the way Sarah Palin did not really have strong appeal to women, except for the fact that she was a woman. Marco Rubio does not have a strong natural appeal to Hispanics, except for the fact that he is Hispanic,” he said.

Salam, who admires Rubio in general, admitted that “I wouldn’t say that the Democrats would have no arrows in their quiver if it came to attacking a ticket that Rubio was on.” The senator’s stated desire to reform Social Security by raising the retirement age might be one vulnerability, he added.

Still, in a party that is not exactly awash with rising stars, Rubio shines brightly. Few people doubt that he has national ambitions, whatever his protestations to the contrary.

According to University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus, the possibility of him being the Number Two on a 2012 presidential ticket is “the buzz that has been circulating in Florida for quite some time.”

There are two schools of thought on his willingness to push himself for that role, overtly or covertly, she said.

On the one hand, he seems such an attractive candidate that he need not hurry onto the very biggest stage. He could bide his time.

On the other, “if he really feels the party will win next year, that changes the calculation.”

The party might well feel its chances of victory are boosted by having the senator on the ticket.

For the man himself, the lure of becoming Vice President Rubio might be too enticing to resist — even if that position would still be one step away from the ultimate destination that many of his supporters predict.


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