News Column

Rubio Still Viable for 2016, Insiders Say

January 8, 2014

William March, Tampa Tribune

marco rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio (file photo)

Jan. 05--TAMPA - Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, according to polls and year-end news wrap-ups, has had a bad year.

Rubio started 2013 as one of the most talked-about Republicans on the national scene and a subject of intense speculation about a possible 2016 run for president.

He finished the year well down in the standings among potential 2016 contenders, and in disrepute with the conservative wing of the party over his attempt to pass an immigration reform bill derided as "amnesty" by tea party Republicans.

The Huffington Post's average of polls on the 2016 GOP primary showed Rubio dropping from the top spot to the lower middle of the pack, plummeting from 22 percent to 7 percent among GOP voters. Last week, the influential Washington political journal The Hill listed him as one of the five Congress members with the worst year in 2013 -- second only to Rep. Trey Radel of Fort Myers, who in November pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and received a year's probation.

But asked whether that means Rubio should be written off as a 2016 competitor, political experts and Republican insiders answer with a resounding "no."

Sure, Rubio's had problems, but those problems are temporary, and there's plenty of time before 2016 for the problems to fade, many said.

Rubio may be overshadowed for the moment by GOP figures prominent in the battles over Obamacare and the federal budget, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, but he has political skills and resources that will sustain him as a contender when other flavors-of-the-month fade, those experts said.

"It's hard to look at these things long-term, because everything in politics is short-term," said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson.

"Look where the Republicans were three months ago after the government shutdown and where they are now," said Paulson, a Republican. "The party's situation has completely reversed, and the same thing could happen with Rubio."

Paulson was referring to the GOP's highly negative public image immediately after the October shutdown -- now largely negated by the controversy over problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

A spokesman said Rubio wasn't available to interview for this story.

Both Rubio and Florida's other potential presidential contender, former Gov. Jeb Bush, are victims of the increasingly bitter split in the Republican Party between the establishment and the right wing, partly over immigration.

Immigration "is an Achilles heel for both with the Republican base," said Dan Schnur, a former GOP political strategist and now political scientist at the University of Southern California.

But Schnur said both have the staying power to remain contenders for the next two years as other candidates come and go. Their immigration stance, though unpopular with tea party interests, "provides them necessary bona fides with the business community," which mostly favors immigration reform, Schnur said.

"The fight between the establishment and the grassroots is going to rage for the next two-and-a-half years," Schnur said. "Either Bush or Rubio will be a key player in how that fight is decided."

Bush, Schnur said, has closer ties to the GOP establishment, while Rubio has better links to the conservative base, despite their opposition to his immigration stance.

In addition, Rubio's national-level problems are not hurting him in Florida, where his job approval ratings remain sound, Paulson noted.

Besides that strong base on his home turf, Rubio has qualities that will continue to make him appealing to GOP voters, the analysts said.

They include a detailed grounding in a wide range of domestic and foreign issues, eloquence, and a compelling personal history, including a family that rose from poverty as immigrants from Cuba. That combination, Paulson noted, wasn't present in several of the GOP candidates who rose to prominence then faded during the 2012 GOP presidential primary.

"Anyone who's heard Rubio speak comes away liking his message," Paulson said.

His biggest problem, Paulson said, is consistency, after flipping from hard-line opposition to favoring a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

Since sponsoring the immigration bill, Rubio worked hard to mend fences with the right wing of the party.

Unlike other Republican members of the "Gang of 8" that sponsored the bill, Rubio made no effort to lobby the House to pass it after the Senate did.

He later supported Cruz's effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, leading to the shutdown, and opposed the recent budget compromise arranged between Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that averted another shutdown.

Meanwhile, the GOP establishment has struck back against the increasing influence of tea party-style Republicans in setting the party's public image -- a move that if successful, could help Bush or Rubio:

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has lashed out against congressional conservatives who rejected a budget compromise, leading to the October government shutdown.

Boehner is also signaling that, like most of the party's financial backers in the business community, he favors passing immigration reform, though not necessarily in the form of a comprehensive, Rubio-style bill.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the latest establishment GOP-oriented organization to plan a campaign to prevent extremist GOP candidates from winning the party's primaries, according to a Wall Street Journal report. A Chamber spokesman wouldn't confirm or deny that.

Tallahassee-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson said such moves suggest that the party will heal its divisions one way or another, and when it does, problems like those Rubio faces will diminish.

"The family feud aspects of this will be managed; we have to get past these things," he said.

"We do like to kill our babies in this party," Wilson said, referring to hard-line Republicans who condemn those not considered hard-line enough. "The moment someone expresses a position even a millimeter off, we reject them. We have to stop making the perfect into the enemy of the good."

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