Ru­bio tries broad ap­proach in early states

With no clear base of sup­port, he lags be­hind Bush and Walker in polls

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY SEAN SUL­LI­VAN sean.sul­li­van@wash­post.com

cedar rapids, iowa — Lunch was about to be served, and Marco Ru­bio was work­ing the room — hard. He mocked sur­prise that one ta­ble’s cook­ies were left un­touched. He posed for a photo and teased, “I even held my stom­ach in!”

This is not con­sid­ered Ru­bio ter­ri­tory, but he is cam­paign­ing with ur­gency in Iowa any­way. He spent Tues­day through Thurs­day hop­scotch­ing from happy hour to cook­out tomeet-and-greet, andhe plans to re­turn for more of the same this week.

He doesn’t have much of a choice. It has been nearly three months since Ru­bio launched his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign amid lofty ex­pec­ta­tions from many Repub­li­cans, who view the Cuban Amer­i­can sen­a­tor from Florida as the party’s best hope for a rapidly chang­ing elec­torate.

But polls show he hasn’t made a dent in the leads en­joyed by Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker and for­mer Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush in the first four pri­mary states. Bush, mean­while, just an­nounced a mas­sive $114 mil­lion fundrais­ing haul, while Walker is set to of­fi­cially kick off his cam­paign Mon­day.

So Ru­bio has em­barked on a strat­egy to com­pete in each of the four early states of Iowa, New Hamp­shire, South Carolina and Ne­vada. The hope is to strike it big in at least one by cob­bling to­gether a di­verse coali­tion of Repub­li­can vot­ers. It is per­haps the best op­tion for a con­tender who, un­like Bush and Walker, has nei­ther an ob­vi­ous path to the nom­i­na­tion nor a clearly de­fined base of sup­port.

Af­ter fo­cus­ing heav­ily on fundrais­ing lead­ing up to the June 30 quar­terly dead­line, Ru­bio is forg­ing a big­ger pres­ence on the cam­paign trail. His swing through Iowa was his most ex­ten­sive visit here since launch­ing his bid in April. He also trav­eled to Ne­vada on Fri­day for a two-day visit, and his cam­paign has re­served TV advertising time in all four of the early states.

Cen­tral to Ru­bio’s pitch is an em­pha­sis on his youth­ful­ness and an op­ti­mistic, if im­pre­cise, vi­sion of the fu­ture. At 44, Ru­bio is among the youngest can­di­dates.

“Quite frankly, I’m the only one run­ning up to now that is run­ning on this mes­sage that the fu­ture is now. It is here. And we can­not be left be­hind by it,” he said at a Wed­nes­day morn­ing stop in Ur­ban­dale where a packed din­ing room of Repub­li­cans tucked into pan­cakes and sipped cof­fee.

One of them was Sharon Clear­man, 72, of John­ston, Iowa. Ru­bio im­pressed her, but she also likes Walker. “He did a big thing,” Clear­man said.

Her ref­er­ence was to Walker’s moves to cur­tail the power of public unions. It made him a na­tional con­ser­va­tive icon and won him deep loy­alty from ac­tivists.

Ru­bio does not have any po­lit­i­cal ac­com­plish­ments of sim­i­lar mag­ni­tude. Asked to name his sig­na­ture achieve­ments in gov­ern­ment af­ter lunch at the Cedar Rapids Coun­try Club, he re­sponded with a mixed list: the pol­icy blue­print he wrote as a state law­maker; and leg­is­la­tion he pushed in the U.S. Se­nate to sup­port girls in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries and hold Vet­er­ans Af­fairs ac­count­able.

Those who have seen Ru­bio speak have no­ticed his em­pha­sis on the fu­ture.

“Sen­a­tor Ru­bio is just more overt say­ing, ‘I’m go­ing to take you to the fu­ture, and then look at my record if you don’t be­lieve I’ve done that,’ ” Iowa Repub­li­can Party Chair­man Jeff Kaufmann said, “whereas [Ted] Cruz and Walker are say­ing, ‘Look atmy record, I’ll take you to the fu­ture.’ ”

If Ru­bio is suf­fer­ing from a ré­sumé deficit com­pared to Walker, he suf­fers from a ma­jor re­source deficit against Bush, who is lead­ing in New Hamp­shire. A pair of out­side groups back­ing Ru­bio have raised about $32 mil­lion, less than a third of the amount raised by a su­per PAC al­lied with Bush. Ru­bio’s cam­paign has not yet re­leased its to­tal.

Ru­bio’s team says it is play­ing a long game. The plan is to in­tro­duce him to as many vot­ers as pos­si­ble be­cause of his tal­ent as a com­mu­ni­ca­tor. If other can­di­dates stum­ble, sup­port­ers be­lieve Ru­bio would be poised to move up.

Ru­bio’s at­tempt to stay in the mix for the long haul is ev­i­dent in his cau­tious rhetoric. Last week, for ex­am­ple, he de­clined to say whether he backs Congress giv­ing Puerto Rico the abil­ity to file for bank­ruptcy like mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the states.

Mean­while, Ru­bio’s re­liance on his youth and fresh­ness some­times prompts a com­par­i­son con­sid­ered un­flat­ter­ing in Repub­li­can cir­cles.

“You are an ex­tremely ar­tic­u­late, en­er­getic, bright, young first­term sen­a­tor. That re­minds me of some­body eight years ago,” one man told him at the Ur­ban­dale break­fast. The crowd chuck­led, in­stantly rec­og­niz­ing the ref­er­ence to Pres­i­dent Obama.

Ru­bio ar­gued force­fully that Obama was a “back­bencher” in the Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture while he was the Florida House speaker. Ru­bio also noted that he has served longer in the U.S. Se­nate than Obama had when he launched his White House bid.

The pol­icy dif­fer­ences be­tween Ru­bio and many of his Repub­li­can com­peti­tors are harder to spot. Ru­bio is run­ning as a staunch mil­i­tary hawk, like most of his op­po­nents. On immigration — which is again con­sum­ing the party as an is­sue— Ru­bio has backed away from sup­port for com­pre­hen­sive re­form he once backed in the Se­nate.

With so many GOP can­di­dates, it has be­come nearly im­pos­si­ble for Ru­bio, or any­one else, to mo­nop­o­lize a cer­tain po­si­tion. And that makes it dif­fi­cult for him to sep­a­rate him­self from the pack.

“I’ve got the field nar­rowed from15 to may be six or seven,” said Pa­trick Wil­liams, 48, a ninth­grade teacher from West Des Moines.

Ru­bio is one of them.

KELSEY KRE­MER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Marco Ru­bio at a fundraiser Tues­day for Iowa Rep. ChrisHagenow.

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