Can­di­date Ru­bio has some catch­ing up to do

Once seen as the GOP front-run­ner, the se­na­tor must re­claim spot­light from ri­vals.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa Mascaro

MIAMI — Three years ago, Sen. Marco Ru­bio was her­alded as the Repub­li­can Party’s fu­ture.

Af­ter the GOP’s sting­ing 2012 pres­i­den­tial loss, strate­gists pre­scribed the charis­matic, young tea party fa­vorite as the an­ti­dote to a frac­tured party — some­one who could even ex­pand the base by at­tract­ing Latino vot­ers.

He so daz­zled the 2012 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion when he in­tro­duced Mitt Rom­ney that some called the con­ser­va­tive a trans­for­ma­tional can­di­date not seen by Repub­li­cans since Ron­ald Rea­gan.

But de­spite the cheers that greeted the 43-year-old Florida se­na­tor as he an­nounced his pres­i­den­tial bid Mon­day, the early buzz has faded. And af­ter a po­lit­i­cal mis­step over im­mi­gra­tion re­form, Ru­bio finds him­self just an­other name in an in­creas­ingly crowded field of 2016 pres­i­den­tial ri­vals who have chipped away at what were once his strong­est as­sets.

For­mer Gov. Jeb Bush, with his un­matched fundrais­ing jug­ger­naut, knocked off Ru­bio as the GOP estab­lish­ment fa­vorite. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is steal­ing the hearts of evan­gel­i­cals and tea party ac­tivists. Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker is the new fresh face.

Now seen at best as a sleeper can­di­date, Ru­bio needs to reignite the ex­cite­ment that once led the party to view him as a front-run­ner.

On Mon­day he tried to do ex­actly that. In front of nearly 1,000 sup­port­ers, he evoked his youth and his par­ents’ im­mi­gra­tion from Cuba, dis­play­ing the skills that make him one of the party’s more gifted com­mu­ni­ca­tors.

“Now, the time has come for our gen­er­a­tion to lead the way to­ward a new Amer­i­can cen­tury,” he told the crowd at Free­dom Tower in down­town Miami, known as the El­lis Is­land of the South for wel­com­ing Cuban ex­iles.

Though some have ques­tioned whether Ru­bio, a fresh­man se­na­tor with a

young ap­pear­ance and a thin leg­isla­tive record, has the ex­pe­ri­ence or com­mand­ing pres­ence Amer­i­cans ex­pect of their pres­i­dent, Ru­bio pre­sented his age as a ben­e­fit, drawing a con­trast with older ri­vals like Bush, 62, and the Demo­cratic front-run­ner, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, 67.

“Just yes­ter­day, a leader from yes­ter­day be­gan a cam­paign for pres­i­dent by promis­ing to take us back to yes­ter­day,” he said, re­fer­ring to Clin­ton’s cam­paign kick­off Sun­day.

“While our peo­ple and econ­omy are push­ing the bound­aries of the 21st cen­tury, too many of our lead­ers and their ideas are stuck in the 20th cen­tury,” he said, adding that Amer­ica won’t suc­ceed by “go­ing back to the lead­ers and ideas of the past. We must change the de­ci­sions we are mak­ing by chang­ing the peo­ple who are mak­ing them.”

Ru­bio’s back­ers are con­fi­dent he can re­peat the kind of come-from-be­hind victory that pro­pelled him to the Se­nate in 2010.

“He’s proven time and time again he’s the come­back kid,” said Nick Iarossi, a Florida lob­by­ist for casino mogul Shel­don Adel­son, a top-rank­ing Repub­li­can donor. “Any­one who would un­der­es­ti­mate him does so at their peril.”

But Ru­bio — No. 2 in a 2012 na­tional pres­i­den­tial sur­vey of Repub­li­can vot­ers — has lan­guished in fifth or sixth place be­hind Bush, Walker and oth­ers in re­cent polling.

Ru­bio stum­bled badly in 2013 by first propos­ing, and then aban­don­ing, a sweep­ing im­mi­gra­tion re­form plan, which alien­ated its ad­vo­cates.

Many con­ser­va­tives haven’t for­given Ru­bio for join­ing Se­nate Democrats in pass­ing the now-dead bi­par­ti­san plan that would have cre­ated a path to cit­i­zen­ship for those in the coun­try il­le­gally. Crit­ics blasted it as “amnesty.”

“It’s a wart on an over­all pos­i­tive story,” said Michael Need­ham, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Ac­tion for Amer­ica, the po­lit­i­cal arm of the in­flu­en­tial Her­itage Foun­da­tion think tank.

Ru­bio has tried to move on from the is­sue, say­ing he mis­cal­cu­lated Amer­i­cans’ de­sire to first tackle bor­der se­cu­rity, which is of huge im­por­tance to his party’s most loyal vot­ers. But as he be­comes the third of­fi­cial Repub­li­can can­di­date for 2016, the is­sue is cer­tain to fol­low the man who dreams of be­ing the first ma­jor party Latino pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

At Mon­day’s event, he gave only pass­ing men­tion to the need to “mod­ern­ize” im­mi­gra­tion laws, call­ing for a more ro­bust mil­i­tary, tax re­form, re­duced gov­ern­ment spend­ing and the re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act. At one point, he spoke in Span­ish, of­fer­ing an in­spi­ra­tional quote from his late fa­ther.

Ru­bio has amassed a strong cam­paign team, many com­ing from Mitt Rom­ney’s 2012 pres­i­den­tial bid. To bol­ster his pol­icy cre­den­tials, the fresh­man se­na­tor re­cently rolled out a se­ries of po­si­tion pa­pers and a new book, “Amer­i­can Dreams,” in which he takes his own party to task for what he said was out­moded pol­icy think­ing.

“He’s the only Repub­li­can can­di­date that is ac­cept­able to all branches of the Repub­li­can Party — the estab­lish­ment groups, the tea party groups, the lib­er­tar­ian groups,” said bil­lion­aire auto dealer Nor­man Bra­man, who has pledged sub­stan­tial back­ing for the cam­paign.

Ru­bio’s only-in-Amer­ica story is ex­pected to weigh heav­ily in the cam­paign. “In many coun­tries, the high­est of­fice in the land is re­served for the rich and pow­er­ful,” Ru­bio said Mon­day. “But I live in an ex­cep­tional coun­try where even the son of a bar­tender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same fu­ture as those who come from power and priv­i­lege.”

Ru­bio has cred­ited his strongly con­ser­va­tive views to child­hood talks with his anti-com­mu­nist Cuban grand­fa­ther. He sided with de­fense hawks last month in seek­ing to boost Pen­tagon spend­ing, part­ing ways with two 2016 can­di­dates, Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who voted against the bud­get.

In re­cent months, Ru­bio’s GOP ri­vals have shored up their pathways to the nom­i­na­tion, lur­ing away con­stituen­cies that Ru­bio would need to win. The pre­sumed en­try of Bush makes it par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for Ru­bio to even cap­ture his own state of Florida, where Bush’s ties are deep.

And his moves on im­mi­gra­tion have dimmed his ap­peal to Latino vot­ers — one of the main rea­sons that party lead­ers once found him so at­trac­tive.

In 2013, when Ru­bio pushed his im­mi­gra­tion plan, 54% of Latino vot­ers were likely to con­sider him for pres­i­dent, ac­cord­ing to the polling firm Latino De­ci­sions. But when told that Ru­bio had switched course on the im­mi­gra­tion ef­fort, 65% said they weren’t likely to give him a look.

Since then, Ru­bio has at­tacked Pres­i­dent Obama’s ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions de­fer­ring de­por­ta­tions — which have cost him more sup­port.

“He’s go­ing to have a very hard time get­ting back to his high mark,” said Matt Bar­reto, a UCLA po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor and co-founder of Latino De­ci­sions.

Joe Raedle Getty Images

SEN. MARCO RU­BIO an­nounced his pres­i­den­tial bid in Miami. “The time has come for our gen­er­a­tion to lead the way to­ward a new Amer­i­can cen­tury,” he said.

Wil­fredo Lee As­so­ci­ated Press

SEN. MARCO RU­BIO is joined on­stage af­ter his an­nounce­ment by his wife, Jeanette, and their four chil­dren, Amanda, left, Daniella, Do­minic and An­thony. A lob­by­ist for a top Repub­li­can donor said of Ru­bio, “He’s proven time and time again he’s the come­back kid.”

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