With Cuba spotlight, Rubio looks to emerge from Jeb's shadow
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The Obama administration's moves to normalize relations with Cuba have given Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Biden administration sanctions Russia for SolarWinds hack, election interference Senators reintroduce bill to block NATO withdrawal New US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations MORE (R-Fla.) a chance to seize the spotlight just as he’s looking to emerge from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's (R) shadow.

Rubio was out first and strongest of any 2016 presidential hopeful by ripping the Obama administration’s moves, touching on his own life experience as the son of Cuban exiles and promising to use his impending perch as chairman of a subcommittee with Cuba jurisdiction to “unravel” Obama’s actions. 


As a result, just a day after Bush announced he would “actively explore” a presidential bid, it was Rubio, not Bush, who was all over the cable news bashing the deal.

Rubio’s furious response and recent vocal criticism of President Obama’s global actions have helped the GOP senator emerge as a leading voice of a muscular, interventionist foreign policy. 

Now, his Senate position gives him a platform to focus on something where Bush has less experience: building a profile as a next-generation GOP hawk. And with Cuba emerging as a hot-button issue for months to come, Rubio is poised to be a leading player in foreign policy.

“He's developed quite an expertise on foreign policy and this Cuba policy is anathema to rank-and-file Republicans. This might give him another piece of the puzzle that would dictate a run,” said GOP strategist Charlie Black, a veteran of a number of presidential campaigns. “It's a good opportunity for him. … There's certainly room for a strong foreign policy / national security candidate.” 

An incensed Rubio jumped on the Obama administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, hitting Fox News even before the administration had a chance to announce the details of its new policy, before doing several other interviews throughout the day. He followed up with a press conference in the Senate, angrily accusing Obama of being  “the single-worst negotiator we’ve had in the White House in my lifetime.” 

He promised to use his expected position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs to try to “unravel” as many of Obama’s moves on U.S.-Cuba policy as he could.

“We're going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you're going to get an ambassador nominated and how you'll get an embassy funded,” Rubio warned. 

Some predicted Bush’s Tuesday announcement that he would “actively explore” a presidential campaign might stonewall Rubio, who has been angling for some of the same well-heeled donors as he looks at a potential bid of his own. But Rubio’s advisers fired back that Bush’s decision wouldn't affect the senator.

Still, Rubio allies privately acknowledge having Bush in the race could complicate fundraising. But the GOP senator has closer, and fresher, ties to Republican base activists, and the young Cuban-American politician’s personal story is similar only to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who pulls from a much different pool of Republican voters. 

Rubio’s platform on foreign policy adds another piece to the puzzle — and his backers were gleeful following his Wednesday performance. 

“He set the marker for Republicans talking about this issue today. He was fastest out of the gate with the hardest statement, and everyone else is playing catch-up on the Republican side,” Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist close to Rubio, told The Hill. 

“You see a guy like Marco who quickly grasped the political, diplomatic and humanitarian ramifications and took action quickly. It was a good leadership moment.”

Rubio’s foreign policy expertise gives him a platform in what’s likely to be a crowded primary field. He has spent the last few years focused on international affairs, emerging as a leading critic of Obama’s handling of crises from Ukraine to Islamic militants. 

Bush’s allies argue that his unique skill set as a well-connected former executive put him in position to be a dominant force in the race — and some expect Rubio would not run if Bush does.

“Logic tells me if Jeb gets in the race Marco Rubio will be running for reelection in 2016,” said Mel Sembler, a Florida-based leading GOP fundraiser who is backing Bush if he runs. Sembler said that the executive experience would give an edge to a governor over a senator.

Some allies of both Bush and Rubio believe there’s room enough for the two of them.

“They've both earned a ticket to take a look at this thing,” Al Cardenas, a Florida-based Republican power broker with ties to both. “There's no reason why they shouldn't.”

Many in the donor class have been looking for someone who can stand up and fight for their foreign policy views against attacks from both the more isolationist Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and eventually against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who would appear to be the most likely opponent in the general election. 

Now, Rubio seems to positioning himself to be that champion.

“He wants to take the foreign policy statesman mantle. And while Jeb narrowed the window to run for Rubio, there's still room for him,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “What's going on around the world and how the Obama administration is handling foreign policy certainly gives Rubio a lifeline.”