Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the quintessential young man in a hurry and son of working-class Cuban refugees, kicked off an ambitious campaign for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination Monday night with a call for a “new American century."
In a speech at the iconic Freedom Tower in Miami, once used as a refugee center for Cubans fleeing Castro, the first-term senator portrayed himself as a transformational figure who could bring a fresh approach to a country long saddled with “stale leadership” from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“This election is not just about what laws we’re going to pass,” said Rubio, 43. “This election is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.”
He added, “I’ve heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake and I can make a difference as president.”
Those remarks by the telegenic former Florida House Speaker were a not-so-subtle dig at Jeb Bush, Rubio’s one-time mentor who is now a leading contender for the GOP nomination next year.
Bush, 62, encouraged Rubio to enter politics in 1998 and run for city commissioner in West Miami. Bush, who was governor of the state from 1999 to 2007, then served as Rubio’s sounding board and adviser as the younger man pursued a career in the Florida state legislature.
The relationship soured when Bush withheld an endorsement during Rubio’s long-shot Senate campaign against former GOP governor Charlie Crist in 2010. Bush didn’t formally come out for Rubio until it became clear Rubio had a chance of winning, according to The New York Times. After that, Bush’s long-time protégé became his rival.
While Americans are proud of their history, Rubio said yesterday, the country cannot move ahead “by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.”
Rubio’s message of generational change was also aimed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who announced her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on Sunday. Rubio – like many other GOP presidential aspirants – is counting on voter fatigue with the Clinton and Bush families to help him sail through the primary and general election.
Rubio said, “Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday. Yesterday is over. And we’re never going back…. Our country has always been about the future.”
Rubio also berated the expansion of government spending and regulations during the Obama administration – including the Affordable Care Act and the $787 billion economic stimulus package during the recession. Rubio argued Obama’s policies had stifled initiative and destroyed economic opportunity – and he attacked Obama’s defense and foreign policy tactics as well, saying they treat the ayatollah in Iran with more respect than they do Israel’s prime minister.
Rubio, along with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, is challenging Obama on everything from defense policy and stimulus spending to health care funding. Despite his fresh face and stirring rhetoric, Rubio faces a tough uphill campaign as he competes with Cruz and Paul for support in the primary from the same conservative and libertarian voters.
Rubio was dubbed the “Republican Savior” by Time in 2013 just a few years after arriving in the Senate. Unlike Cruz and Paul, Rubio began distancing himself from the Tea Party as he cultivated a more mainstream image as a bipartisan dealmaker.
Although he joined with the two men in filibustering the Obama administration’s use of military drones in the war on terror, Rubio drew criticism from the Tea Party and others for working with Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate in June 2013. It offered a potential path to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants.
That legislation died in the House, where conservative Republicans opposed virtually any immigration action other than better security along the U.S.–Mexican border and making it tougher for illegal immigrants to find or hold jobs. Rubio later apologized and found ways to win favor with conservatives.
He may find it difficult, though, to keep up with Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Cruz and others in raising campaign funds. Cruz and the Super PACs supporting him raised $34 million within a week of Cruz’s announcement of his candidacy, while Bush and Walker have been raising tens of millions as well. For now, at least, Rubio is in the middle of the pack of more than a dozen prominent GOP presidential aspirants, according to recent polls.
Even so, University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said Rubio has “plenty of potential, from charisma and many conservative views that the base will like, to his ability to at least get a hearing from Hispanics and Latinos.”
“The question is whether all his potential will be realized,” Sabato added. “He needs some lucky breaks, and Bush will be doing everything possible to torpedo Rubio. Florida's a big state but probably not big enough for simultaneous presidential ambitions by Bush and Rubio. Should Bush stumble, or should the already-strong grassroots resistance to yet another Bush harden, Rubio will be in a good position – along with Scott Walker – to pick up the pieces.”
Rubio’s announcement last night was rife with references to being the third child of Cuban parents who immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 and were naturalized as U.S. citizens in 1975. “I live in an exceptional country where 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,” he said.
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