Rubio Takes Increasing National Glare in Stride

Sen. Marco Rubio isn’t running for president in 2012 and vows to reject any offer to run for vice president. But the Florida Republican understands that the buzz and the questions won’t subside, and he is happy to use the national platform they provide to push his agenda.

“If people want to pay attention to what I have to say because of the speculation? I haven’t thought about that. But I also hope it’s because we have something meaningful to contribute to this debate — that we’ll be a voice that has a meaningful role to play,” Rubio said Wednesday during an interview in his new office in the Hart Senate Office Building. “Every election cycle — quite frankly, every six months in this process — produces some flavor of the month. What ultimately matters is what you’ve done, how hard you’ve worked, the contribution you’ve made to the public debate.” 

The presidential chatter surrounding Rubio began early in his upstart Senate primary campaign against then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Conservatives and tea party activists in Florida and across the country were captivated by the Cuban-American — who cultivated national support when endorsements at home were hard to find — and began talking about him as a White House contender long before it was clear he would chase the once-formidable Crist out of the Republican Party and win the 2010 Senate race.

Perhaps because of this experience, Rubio and a seasoned team that includes operatives who have advised presidential candidates have spent the first few months of the 112th Congress focused on Florida and local issues. The former state Speaker has declined several invitations to keynote Republican events in other states, part of his strategy to prove to Floridians that he did not view the Senate as an inconvenient stepping stone to higher office.

Simultaneously, those close to Rubio recognize that he can use his status as a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate to garner useful attention. Countering President Barack Obama on fiscal and foreign policy issues were among the major themes of Rubio’s Senate campaign, and when he announced recently his position on Libya and conditions for voting to raise the debt ceiling, the national media offered him more coverage than they would the typical freshman. 

Rubio said the Senate provides him with enough of a platform, and that it is only natural for him to hone in on national issues given the size and diversity of Florida and how each of these matters affect his home state. He declined to complain about the White House speculation.

“I don’t think it’s annoying. I’m not annoyed by it; it’s part of the job,” Rubio said. “I don’t have to be in the U.S. Senate. I could go work at a law firm and no one would be asking me about that. I chose to be here; I worked hard to be here; I’m privileged to be here. It’s part of the territory.”

The Senator can control whether to run for president. But the buzz is likely to accelerate again in about a year to 18 months, when the GOP has a presidential nominee and attention turns to whom that individual might select as a running mate. Telegenic Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) could make the short list, as could Sen. Rob Portman, who hails from the key state of Ohio.

But some Republican operatives have pointed to Rubio as the most appealing candidate. His ethnicity, charisma and status as a Senator from a key swing state might offer more to the eventual Republican presidential nominee than any other potential No. 2 pick. Thune, who recently went through a period of media speculation while he decided whether to run for president, said the experience can be intense.

“I can appreciate what some of these other guys are going through,” said Thune, who ultimately decided not to run. “It’s something that you deal with, because every time you do an interview you have to be prepared to answer that question.”

Despite staying out of the presidential field, Rubio could find himself a key player in Florida Republican politics. New Gov. Rick Scott (R) thus far has shown little interest in state GOP politics, and Crist wasn’t much different. Not since Jeb Bush left the governor’s office has the state’s Republican chief executive played a significant role in the party.

But GOP operatives who monitor Florida say Rubio is already having an effect. Republicans running in primaries are attempting to model themselves after the Senator — both in style and philosophy. Rubio is remaining neutral in the state’s GOP Senate primary, but he has met at some point with all of the candidates in the race. And Rubio has been an advocate for Florida’s position and importance in the 2012 presidential nominating process.

“Marco has an opportunity right now to make his stake in the party,” said David Johnson, a GOP consultant based in Tallahassee who served as executive director of the party under Bush.