Rubio turns to war on poverty

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is turning to the war on poverty in an effort to restore the luster to his political star after a difficult 2013.

GOP strategists say Rubio is trying to reassert himself on the national stage with what his office is touting as a major speech. It comes after Rubio took a political pummeling over the last year over his role in passing comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate.

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“This is an all-out effort for Sen. Rubio to re-establish himself on the national stage and turn the page from the immigration debate, which was handled horribly,” said Alex Patton, a Republican strategist based in Florida.

Rubio’s allies say the speech is a return to a theme he has spoken of eloquently throughout his career: expanding access to the American dream by creating incentives for individual initiative.

“If you go back and listen to the speeches Marco Rubio gave when he was a Senate candidate in Florida, expanding access to the American dream was at the core of his message,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who counts Rubio as a client. “It is vitally important, in his mind, to break the cycle of poverty and create additional upward social and economic mobility.”

Ayres put the speech in the context of former President Reagan and former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), icons who reinvigorated Republican politics by heralding the promise of conservative policies for all economic classes, including the lowest.

Patton said he wouldn’t go so far as to say Rubio was trying to relaunch himself, but said he clearly wants to change his image.

“His first step-out on policy was not extremely successful so I don’t want to call it a rebranding, because I think it’s too strong of a word, but I do think this is a reposition of the senator and his image,” he said. “This is an issue that he can solely own. Other issues in the national spotlight have been cherry-picked by other politicians.”

The Florida senator released a video message over the weekend criticizing what he called former President Johnson's failed effort through the Great Society to end poverty.

“For millions of Americans living in poverty, the American dream does not seem reachable — and that’s unacceptable,” he said Sunday. “After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?”

Rubio is promising to detail his ideas for combating poverty in the months ahead.

“This agenda would create an economy with more good-paying middle-class jobs and a government with less debt,” he said Sunday. “It would repeal ObamaCare and it would replace it with more affordable healthcare options. It would save and strengthen our retirement programs for future generations.” 

Rubio began 2013 with bright prospects for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, but ended it having lost ground in polls to other GOP stars, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and fellow GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.).

In-between was a fight with conservatives over Rubio’s support for the Senate immigration bill.

The Florida senator has since moved to the right, and in July was one of the first Senate Republicans to call on colleagues to reject any government funding measure that included funds for the implementation of ObamaCare. 

Yet in September and October, Cruz took the lead in the debate over whether to pass a government funding measure that allowed the implementation of the Affordable Care Act to proceed.

Other conservative Republicans, such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), have made similar attempts to frame conservative policies as helpful to middle- and lower-income voters.

With Democrats making income inequality one of their top political issues of 2014, rising Republican stars such as Rubio want to get ahead of the issue. Pope Francis’s elevation of the plight of the poor has given more visibility to the issue in the United States as well, some strategists say.

“We can’t just say poverty doesn’t exist,” said Patton. “Income inequality on the heels of what the pope is saying — he’s at the forefront of an issue that I think is going to become more salient in the next two years.”

A Senate GOP aide allied with Rubio said the Florida lawmaker is not merely jumping on the latest political trend but instead returning to an issue he has stressed for years.

“If you go back and look at his speech in Tampa at the convention, the Kemp Foundation speech with [Rep. Paul] Ryan [(R-Wis.)] right after the election, his response to the president’s State of the Union, all of those speeches were really at their core about the American middle class,” said the aide.

Rubio’s allies say he is well qualified to speak out on economic mobility because he is the son of Cuban immigrants who supported their family with working-class jobs. Rubio’s father worked as a bartender while his mother worked as a maid, cashier and retail clerk.

In his video message previewing Wednesday’s speech, Rubio said the nation needs a “real agenda” that helps people acquire the skills they need to compete for high-wage jobs.

Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have complained for years that U.S. citizens lack the requisite skills in math, science and technology to fill the demand for high-tech workers.

Rubio will speak at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Capitol’s Lyndon Baines Johnson Room just off the Senate floor.

—This story was posted at 11:03 a.m. and updated at 5:03 p.m.