After a series of strong debate performances, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) has moved closer to the front of the line in the crowded Republican presidential field.
Until recently, Rubio’s campaign strategy had been to keep his head down and wait for the outsider candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson to fade away, and to let Jeb Bush keep sabotaging his own campaign with verbal gaffes and uninspiring appearances.
That strategy shifted in the third GOP debate last month when Rubio memorably redirected an attack about his attendance record in the Senate back at his former mentor.
Rubio’s elevated status was on display in this week’s debate and while he delivered another strong performance, his rivals, especially Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), began laying out the lines of attack they likely will use against him in the coming weeks.
Here are the issues that could derail Rubio’s bid:
In 2013, Rubio was a part of a group of lawmakers known as the Gang of Eight who tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship. Rubio has since distanced himself from the reform bill, which passed the Senate but died in the House, and downplayed his role in crafting it.
Yet his participation in the overhaul effort has become fodder for his presidential rivals in a year in which Trump has made immigration a marquee issue.
Cruz, who notched his strongest debate performance yet this week, has hit Rubio’s stances on immigration regularly since they shared a stage together.
“It is not complicated that on the seminal fight over amnesty in Congress, the Gang of Eight bill that was the brainchild of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama, that would have granted amnesty to 12 million people here illegally, that I stood with the American people and led the fight to defeat it in the United States Congress,” Cruz said Wednesday at an event in New Hampshire, according to MSNBC.
Rubio’s poor financial choices -- including cashing out a $68,000 retirement plan, spending $80,000 on a fishing boat and using a Republican Party credit card for personal purchases -- has taken on a new dimension in recent weeks.
In the debate last month, Rubio confronted the questions about his personal finances head on, making light of them in ways many found relatable, including his student loan debt that at one point was nearly $100,000. Still, the topic could prove to be a double-edged sword, as Rubio must also explain how he paid off his debt with a book advance – an option not available to many voters.
And while he has tried to end the discussion about his use of a GOP American Express card by releasing his statements – which show $182,000 in charges over four years, with $22,000 spent on personal items, including a hotel bill and flowers – the other Republican hopefuls are unlikely to let the hubbub quiet down roughly 80 days before the Iowa caucuses.
Rubio has Cruz to thank again for raising an issue others in the GOP, or Democrats in a general election, could use as a weapon.
In the latest debate, Cruz bragged about the federal programs he wants to eliminate. “Among them are corporate welfare, like sugar subsidies. Let’s take that as an example. Sugar subsidies. Sugar farmers farm under roughly 0.2 percent of the farmland in America, and yet they give 40 percent of the lobbying money,” he said. “That sort of corporate welfare is why we’re bankrupting our kids, and grandkids.”
Although Cruz didn’t mention him by name, Rubio has been a reliable supporter of the federal program that protects domestic sugar producers. Some influential donors, including the Koch brothers, want the subsidy eliminated, and few voters are interested in subsidies for large, profitable industries.
Age and Inexperience
Rubio’s poor attendance record in the Senate -- where he’s missed about 12 percent of votes since being elected in 2010 -- has dogged his candidacy for weeks. Last month a Florida newspaper called on Rubio, who opted not to run for re-election so he could focus on his White House bid, to resign and let someone else fill his seat.
He has brushed off concerns, saying there is more to being a senator than voting, such as constituent service. Bush, whose attack about Rubio enjoying a “French work week” backfired in last month’s debate, has refused to let the issue go, hinting that Rubio, 44, is inexperienced.
Rubio’s campaign responded with a biting ad showing several instances where Bush praised his former protégé’s meteoric rise.
If his hot streak continues, Rubio will eventually have to own up to the fact that as a sitting U.S. senator he is an establishment candidate in a primary contest where outsiders like Trump and Carson have been dominating the polls.
He’s already working to recast himself as something other than an establishment figure. In a fundraising email sent Thursday, he said attacks on the campaign are “growing (both from Hillary and the Democrats and Establishment Republicans).”
Rubio has five weeks until the next GOP debate to make the new strategy pay off.