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The Florida senator is moving full throttle towards a White House bid, hitting the road hard to raise money and elevate his profile. While allies and advisors say he hasn’t made a final decision, most now privately expect he’ll take the plunge.
Rubio gathered more than 300 donors and supporters in Miami last weekend, telling them to “prepare for a presidential campaign,” according to one staff member in attendance.
“I think he's much closer to running than he was a month ago,” said another source close to Rubio who was at the event. “He sounds like a guy who's getting to run for president...He wants to be in this fight. The fire in the belly is there and he thinks he can win.”
It’s a gamble for the 43 year-old Rubio, who has to choose between running for another Senate term next year and undertaking a White House bid. Staying in the Senate is the surer bet, though reelection isn't guaranteed in swing-state Florida.
“Sen. Rubio is doing what's necessary to prepare a very competitive campaign,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. “He hasn't made a final decision but is obviously taking the steps necessary should he decide to run for president.”
After huddling with his advisors in Miami, Rubio jetted to attending a confab of top conservative donors hosted by the billionaire Koch brothers, where he earned plaudits from influential attendees after squaring off with Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in a forum. The rest of week was spent in California, where he attended a series of fundraisers.
The senator has more fundraising trips planned in the coming weeks, with stops scheduled in Chicago and Texas. His upcoming book tour will take him to the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
The Floridian has been sharpening his message ahead of a potential campaign, spending the last year trying out forward-looking themes focused on middle class achievement and giving a heavy focus to education and foreign policy.
His new book, "American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone," builds upon a theme that emerged in a series of speeches last year where he outlined a path for the American middle class to succeed in the “21st century economy.”
Rubio has also been unafraid to draw contrasts with some of the GOP’s other rising stars.
Last week, he scoffed when a reporter repeated comments from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) that the next president should be a governor with executive experience.
"The next president of the United States needs to be someone that has a clear view of what's happening in the world, a clear strategic vision of America's role in it and a clear practical plan for how to engage America in global affairs. And I think, for governors, that's going to be a challenge, at least initially, because they don't deal with foreign policy on a daily basis," he said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast,
The senator has also emerged as the leading voice attacking President Obama’s new Cuba policy, the latest time he's used a foreign policy shift to attack the president and elevate his profile.
Strategists say that he and Walker may be the best positioned to unite the party because they hold appeal to the base and don’t have the rhetoric that alienates the donor class and swing voters.
Rubio has deep ties with the Tea Party movement, though some movement conservatives are still furious about his past support for comprehensive immigration reform.
Many in the donor class and GOP establishment also think highly of the young senator, who gets strong marks for his charisma, positive message and because of his appealing profile as a Hispanic first-generation American from a middle class family.
It’s a profile not unlike that of then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who faced similar criticism in 2008 that he was too young or inexperienced to wrestle the nomination from more senior members of the party. His supporters note he's defied the odds before though, toppling Gov. Charlie Crist to win the GOP Senate primary in 2010.
With such a large, wide-open presidential field in 2016, Rubio could emerge as a top contender. But he's also risking a promising Senate career and the opportunity to run for president again in the future if he flames out too early. And while his family has told him they're on board, he'd have to give up time with his young children to run.
"He's very much a family man and spends a ton of time with his wife and kids. He's as passionate about coaching his son's football team as anything else in his life," said a source familiar with Rubio's thinking. "[But] I think if he didn't have to put his Senate seat up he'd definitely be in."
Rubio has said he’ll make an official announcement about whether he’ll run for the presidency or seek reelection soon. Those close to him expect he’ll make a decision “sometime in the next few weeks or couple months.”
Some initially speculated that Rubio would struggle to raise the needed money to run for president after his mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), started making strong moves towards a campaign. But in the era of super-PACs, mega-donors and increased money in politics overall, a cash shortage isn’t likely to be what forces serious candidates out of the race.
“All of these leading candidates are going to have enough money to compete,” Fred Malek, a kingmaker in the GOP donor community and finance chairman for the Republican Governors Association, told reporters on Friday. “So don't focus there, focus on who they're getting into their teams, their organizers, their message. That's what's going to be important.”
Rubio isn’t forming new fundraising committees or making the splashy hires that some of his potential rivals are. But he doesn’t need to — he has long had both a leadership and federal PAC, and most of his core team has been together for years, including many with presidential campaign experience.
Rubio recently beefed up his fundraising operation, hiring Anna Rogers, who’d previously been finance director at the heavy-hitting super-PAC American Crossroads, adding one more piece to a near-complete puzzle.
“At this point he's moved himself back into the top tier of Republican candidates and I think you're going to see activity in the next few months that shows he's going to be able to raise the money to be taken seriously,” said Matt Keelen, a Washington lobbyist who has helped Rubio with fundraising. “He's going full steam ahead… to put himself in a position where he can make a decision from a position from strength.”