Ru­bio a Jet Ski among mo­tor­cy­cles

In Iowa, the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date from Florida tries not to be too young, too out front

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Lisa Mascaro lisa.mascaro@la­times.com Twit­ter: @lisam­as­caro

BOONE, Iowa — As Marco Ru­bio sliced through a pork roast at an Iowa fair­ground, not even a soft­ball ques­tion about his fam­ily’s beloved Cuba could get the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­ful to veer from friendly chitchat to en­gage in a more sub­stan­tive po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion.

The Florida se­na­tor, who is be­gin­ning to in­tro­duce him­self to the Amer­i­can heart­land, pre­ferred to stick to safe top­ics like the de­li­cious­ness of the Iowa-made pork sea­son­ing or roast­ing tech­niques.

Had this been his home­town of Miami, there al­most cer­tainly would have been a ref­er­ence to car­ni­tas or le­chon asado, fa­vorite Latino pork dishes. But this be­ing Iowa, Ru­bio hardly breathed a word of Span­ish through­out the event, which brought to­gether sev­eral GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates hop­ing to make an im­pres­sion in the state with the na­tion’s first pres­i­den­tial cau­cus.

Asked by a re­porter to ad­dress more se­ri­ous is­sues, Ru­bio again brushed off ques­tions with a smile, keep­ing his eye on the roast pork. “We’re work­ing here,” he said cheer­fully.

Ru­bio’s can­di­dacy has steadily and qui­etly as­cended in the com­pli­cated Repub­li­can pri­mary field. Even though he rarely tops the polls, Ru­bio seems to be ev­ery­one’s first pick as a sec­ond choice, re­flected in a re­cent Des Moines Reg­is­ter poll. Strate­gists say that gives Ru­bio the po­ten­tial to emerge as a strong con­sen­sus can­di­date in a GOP field that al­ready fea­tures nearly a dozen as­pi­rants.

Ru­bio, 44, has a youth­ful, up­beat mes­sage that he hopes will set him apart not only from Demo­cratic fa­vorite Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, but also from for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other Repub­li­can con­tenders.

Ru­bio’s po­ten­tial ap­peal to mi­nor­ity vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly Lati­nos, is an­other key sell­ing point as the Repub­li­can Party strug­gles to broaden its base.

But it’s un­clear whether he can par­lay boy­ish charisma and soar­ing rhetoric into a vi­able pres­i­den­tial bid, and some vot­ers and strate­gists are ask­ing the same dis­arm­ingly sim­ple ques­tion about Ru­bio: Is there any there there?

And as he moves his cam­paign into Mid­west­ern and early-nom­i­nat­ing states with less di­ver­sity — Iowa is about 92% white — it re­mains to be seen whether Ru­bio’s ap­peal will trans­late with tra­di­tional GOP vot­ers.

“I re­ally need more in­for­ma­tion on him,” said Janelle File, a re­tired bank vice pres­i­dent, af­ter lis­ten­ing to Ru­bio speak. “He’s re­ally well­spo­ken and has a great back­ground. But I re­ally want to see more.”

Last week­end’s pig roast and mo­tor­cy­cle ride, hosted by Repub­li­can Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst in Boone, could have been Ru­bio’s mo­ment to shine.

It was his sec­ond trip to the state, and highly an­tic­i­pated. With his mes­sage of eco­nomic con­ser­vatism, Chris­tian val­ues and a strong na­tional de­fense, Ru­bio was poised to cap­i­tal­ize on his early sup­port for Ernst, the popular se­na­tor elected in Novem­ber.

But Ru­bio didn’t seem to im- press the crowd as much as he has in other set­tings. In pressed khakis and a starched-col­lar shirt, Ru­bio could barely com­pete with Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker and for­mer Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who swag­gered into the event wear­ing blue­jeans and leather.

Ru­bio skipped the mo­tor­cy­cle ride and po­litely de­clined Ernst’s of­fer to ride on the back of her bike. He joked that he would do bet­ter at a Jet Ski race.

In many ways, Ru­bio is an out­sider here in mid­dle Amer­ica, and he takes care not to come off as too youth­ful, ur­ban or eth­nic. In telling his fam­ily’s im­mi­grant story here, he didn’t men­tion his par­ents’ jour­ney from Cuba, as he usu­ally does.

Ru­bio in­stead pre­sented him­self as some­one just like them: a dad who pays the mort­gage, sends his kids to Chris­tian school and be­lieves the new gen­er­a­tion will do bet­ter.

“I had some peo­ple say I’m not old enough or haven’t been in gov- ern­ment long enough,” he told the crowd. “I’m 44 years old, but I feel 45, and I’ve been in gov­ern­ment long enough to know that what we’re do­ing now doesn’t work. If we keep pro­mot­ing the same peo­ple, we will get the same re­sult and the fu­ture will leave us be­hind.”

Ru­bio’s aides char­ac­ter­ize his cam­paign strat­egy as “lean and mean,” and deny any de­sire to push Ru­bio more out front than he is, pre­fer­ring a come-from-be­hind strat­egy. He has yet to hire a direc­tor for his Iowa op­er­a­tions, as oth­ers have, though aides in­sist the cam­paign is ramp­ing up and more staff is com­ing.

Iowa vot­ers are a fa­mously per­snick­ety bunch, both ag­gres­sive in their ex­pec­ta­tion that ev­ery can­di­date will court their vote and pas­sive in their un­will­ing­ness to com­mit to any one pres­i­den­tial hope­ful too soon.

That might be in part be­cause Repub­li­cans here have picked a string of losers re­cently in a state- wide cau­cus that prides it­self on be­ing the first testing ground for pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Their past GOP choices, Mike Huck­abee in 2008 and Rick San­to­rum in 2012, failed to win the party’s nom­i­na­tion, let alone the White House.

That could pro­vide an open­ing for Ru­bio as Iowans look for a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to likely front-run­ners Bush and Walker.

“Many of us Iowans are su­per­sen­si­tive to this: We’re tired of be­ing the an­gry white guy party,” said one se­nior Repub­li­can in the state, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the choices. “It doesn’t hurt that [Ru­bio is] a dif­fer­ent face.”

Younger vot­ers in par­tic­u­lar call Ru­bio a fa­vorite, and at the Iowa event, the few Latino vot­ers in the pre­dom­i­nantly white crowd dashed over to Ru­bio for self­ies.

“You’re go­ing to be all over Face­book,” shouted one fan.

“That’s great; we need to be!” Ru­bio re­sponded.

“I love Ru­bio,” said Lau­rie Mil­lam, who runs the busi­ness school at an on­line uni­ver­sity. She said she par­tic­u­larly liked how the Latino can­di­date smoothed racial and par­ti­san dis­tinc­tions with a “one Amer­ica” mes­sage.

At some point, Ru­bio will need to sit down at the kitchen ta­ble and dis­play the skills and re­sources nec­es­sary to tell vot­ers his vi­sion for the na­tion, much like he did when he was a long-shot Se­nate can­di­date go­ing door-to-door five years ago in Florida.

In Boone, cor­nered by a young voter with ques­tions about the fu­ture of fed­eral spend­ing, Ru­bio broke from script and launched into a dis­course on the eco­nomics of Medi­care costs and need for en­ti­tle­ment spend­ing re­forms.

But sev­eral Iowans were less than im­pressed with Ru­bio’s per­for­mance.

Brenda Rem­s­ing, a homemaker from Co­ry­don who rode to Boone on the back of a friend’s mo­tor­cy­cle, likes Sen. Ted Cruz, the fire­brand Texas Repub­li­can, but she puts Ru­bio as her sec­ond fa­vorite.

“He’d be a good No. 1 — if I can’t have No. 1,” she said.

For Ru­bio, for now, that might be en­dorse­ment enough.

Scott Olson Getty Images

SEN. MARCO RU­BIO (R-Fla.) at a “Roast and Ride” event in Boone, Iowa. One lo­cal said of the se­na­tor: “He’s re­ally well-spo­ken and has a great back­ground. But I re­ally want to see more.”

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