Can Ru­bio go the dis­tance?

Repub­li­cans are be­gin­ning to give the sen­a­tor from Florida a se­ri­ous look, but can he go the dis­tance?

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PHILIP RUCKER philip.rucker@wash­post.com

Repub­li­cans are giv­ing the sen­a­tor from Florida a hard look.

las ve­gas — Af­ter watch­ing Marco Ru­bio de­liver his up­lift­ing stump speech at a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity here the other night, Howard Dick­er­son, 80, turned to his wife, Alice, and said, “He’s the one.”

“He’s got the whole pack­age,” Dick­er­son said. “He leaves you feel­ing like you’re in good hands. I am sold on him, I’ll tell you.”

The next day, a sim­i­lar re­ac­tion: “He speaks from the heart— and it’s smooth, with­out the hems and haws how most Amer­i­cans speak,” Mar­cia Fried­man, an artist and writer, said af­ter see­ing Ru­bio cam­paign at a Cuban res­tau­rant here. “He just ex­udes a trust­wor­thi­ness.”

As Repub­li­cans harp on the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of their lead­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates — Jeb Bush’s dy­nas­tic pedi­gree and cam­paign-trail mishaps, for in­stance, or Don­ald Trump’s and Ben Car­son’s pre­pared­ness to be com­man­der in chief — they are be­gin­ning to give Ru­bio a se­ri­ous look.

The crowds at Ru­bio’s events are big­ger and more en­thu­si­as­tic than be­fore. His de­bate per­for­mances were widely ac­claimed. He is tick­ing up in the polls ever so slightly. To Repub­li­cans in search of an electable stan­dard-bearer to win back the White House, Ru­bio rep­re­sents a bas­ket of po­ten­tial— the GOP’s great Barack Oba­ma­like hope.

YetRu­bio is largely untested on the na­tional stage. He has not faced the in­tense media scru­tiny that front-run­ners at­tract. His ri­vals are only be­gin­ning to at­tack: Trump called him “a light­weight,” while Bush be­lit­tled his lead­er­ship ex­pe­ri­ence and spotty Se­nate at­ten­dance record.

Per­haps the big­gest ob­sta­cle for Ru­bio are his par­al­lels with Obama. It has be­come Repub­li­can gospel that Obama is in over his head as pres­i­dent, so it re­mains to be de­ter­mined whether the party would nom­i­nate in 2016 its own charis­matic, first-term sen­a­tor with­out ex­ec­u­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

Un­like some of his op­po­nents, Ru­bio has no nat­u­ral base of sup­port, nor has he set­tled on a par­tic­u­lar state that he sees as ripe for an early win. Ru­bio is rais­ing sig­nif­i­cantly less money than Bush and some other can­di­dates— and though his cam­paign boasts of its fru­gal­ity, the down­side is his or­ga­ni­za­tion on the ground is more shal­low.

The ques­tion this fall, then, is whether Ru­bio can go the dis­tance. Will his mo­men­tum, as ephemeral as it may seem to­day, even­tu­ally grow into a durable and last­ing move­ment? Can Ru­bio ful­fill his prom­ise, as en­cap­su­lated by Time mag­a­zine’s 2013 cover anoint­ing him “The Repub­li­can Sav­ior”?

“Marco Ru­bio is in po­si­tion to be the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee,” said Steve Sch­midt, a strate­gist on the Ge­orge W. Bush and John McCain pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns. “The chal­lenge is to be pre­pared for the mo­ment in time where his num­bers climb rapidly, which is inmy view al­most cer­tain to hap­pen.”

To break out from the big GOP pack, many can­di­dates have chased head­lines — rush­ing to the aid of im­pris­oned Ken­tucky clerk Kim Davis or to dis­avow birthright cit­i­zen­ship.

Not Ru­bio. This 44-year-old son of Cuban im­mi­grants is a sto­ry­teller and be­lieves in the per­sua­sive power of his per­sonal nar­ra­tive. His cam­paign has been cau­tious, with each po­ten­tial move weighed as to whether it serves his own story.

“You can go af­ter the latest shin­ing ob­ject or stay fo­cused and ex­e­cute your plan,” said Ne­vada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchi­son, Ru­bio’s state cam­paign chair­man. “He needs to stay fo­cused.”

On Thurs­day night in Sum­mer­lin, a master-planned com­mu­nity on the out­skirts of Las Ve­gas, Ru­bio cast him­self as an agent of change. “If we keep elect­ing the same kind of peo­ple, the next per­son in line, the per­son they tell us we’ve got to vote for, noth­ing is go­ing to change,” he said.

If that sounds fa­mil­iar, that’s be­cause it is. On the stump in Oc­to­ber, Ru­bio gives nearly the same speech he gave in down­town Mi­ami when he first an­nounced his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in April.

One might call this bor­ing or ro­botic, but the Ru­bio team sees it as con­sis­tent and dis­ci­plined. He is try­ing not to peak now. Ru­bio’s strat­egy is to be­come the mo­men­tum can­di­date at just the right mo­ment: Not in Oc­to­ber, not in Novem­ber, but right around New Year’s, be­fore Repub­li­cans start cau­cus­ing and vot­ing on Feb. 1.

A tal­ented com­mu­ni­ca­tor, Ru­bio can sweep au­di­ences off their feet. Dur­ing a re­cent lun­cheon speech, for ex­am­ple, a chef and server came out from the kitchen to lis­ten and record videos of him. But his al­lies see a risk in over­ex­po­sure, con­cerned that the chills his crowds feel might wear off if he is in the spotlight month af­ter month.

“Tim­ing is an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated virtue in pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns,” Sch­midt said. “The is­sue for the ul­ti­mate nom­i­nee of the party is not about get­ting to the top of the polls; it’s main­tain­ing your po­si­tion at the top of the polls when that mo­ment comes.”

Ru­bio’s per­for­mances are re­hearsed ora­tions of pol­icy pro­nounce­ments and per­sonal anec­dotes. He pep­pers his talks with catchy, re­lat­able ex­am­ples. When he ex­pounds on how tech­nol­ogy is dis­rupt­ing the econ­omy, he draws know­ing nods when he says that Uber has be­come a lead­ing trans­porta­tion com­pany with­out own­ing any ve­hi­cles.

Ex­plain­ing his plan to over­haul higher ed­u­ca­tion and ex­pand vo­ca­tional train­ing, he says, as he did at a busi­ness lun­cheon on Fri­day: “We know for a fact that a welder makes a lot more money than a philoso­pher, but we grad­u­ate a lot of peo­ple with phi­los­o­phy de­grees and we stop teach­ing peo­ple how to be welders or air­plane me­chan­ics or tech­ni­cians or ma­chin­ists or pipe fit­ters or plum­bers or elec­tri­cians.”

Jeff Hart­son, 54, a handy­man, said, “I like just about ev­ery­thing he stands for. I’m re­ally op­ti­mistic about Marco. . . . He doesn’t come from wealth or priv­i­lege. He un­der­stands why the United States was founded and why it’s the great­est coun­try on earth.”

Ru­bio was speak­ing from in­side the gates of the Canyon Gate Coun­try Club. From his podium, he could look out to the per­fectly man­i­cured and well-wa­tered golf course. Red tile-roofed McMan­sions were sprin­kled all around and, off in the dis­tance, rose the moun­tains of Red Rock Canyon.

It was a heady scene for a can­di­date who, as he told this crowd, spent part of his child­hood in a dif­fer­ent Las Ve­gas. His mother cleaned rooms at the old Im­pe­rial Palace and his fa­ther tended bar at Sam’s Town, a lowend casino off the Strip.

“For me, the jour­ney from be­hind that bar to the life I live to­day — that is the essence of the Amer­i­can Dream,” Ru­bio said. “That jour­ney is what makes Amer­ica dif­fer­ent and spe­cial, and it also is what uni­fies us.”

When Ru­bio opened up the room for ques­tions, the first came from a man in the back. “Mr. Pres­i­dent,” he be­gan. The crowd laughed, and Ru­bio cor­rected him.

“Marco,” he said, “for now.”

JOHN LOCHER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. Marco Ru­bio (R-Fla.), speak­ing at a cam­paign event Fri­day in Las Ve­gas, is be­gin­ning to draw larger and more en­thu­si­as­tic crowds as he ticks up slightly in the polls.

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