A year ago, then-candidate Marco Rubio received a megastar welcome when he was introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) as a keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference annual gathering in Washington, D.C.
But when CPAC kicks off next week, Florida’s freshman Senator plans to be miles away from the gathering — with Lincoln Day dinners in Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties as the top priorities on his February calendar.
The invitation to address the widely covered conservative meeting is far from the first request Rubio has turned down; it is part of a calculated effort to stay out of the national spotlight as much as possible.
Rubio has turned down “hundreds” of national media interview requests (including one for this article) since he was elected in November and instead has engaged only local press, according to sources close to the Florida Republican.
Just last week, Rubio drew mention in news reports about the launch of the Senate Tea Party Caucus because of his decision not to immediately join the small band of lawmakers considered heroes by the grass-roots movement.
But advisers and former colleagues said his decision to shun national exposure is unlikely to hurt the freshman Senator with those who supported him during the campaign.
“The most important thing for grass-roots tea party members is how you vote, it’s not what caucus you join or what TV shows you are on or what speeches you give,” Rubio adviser Todd Harris said. “The tea party as a movement is into changing the way politicians in Washington vote and make decisions.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told Roll Call that Rubio’s decision to step back from the glare of the Washington-driven spotlight was very much in line with the former state lawmaker’s personality and legislative style.
“If anyone who supported him thought that they were electing a show horse they were wrong; he’s a workhorse,” Diaz-Balart said. “A show horse without substance fizzles away fairly quickly.”
The strategy has become familiar for new Senators who come to the chamber as high-profile freshmen. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) used it after he won his protracted battle against former Sen. Norm Coleman (R), as did first-lady-turned-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Both Franken and Clinton instead involved themselves deeply in their committee work and learning the ways of the Senate rather than immediately jumping back on the national stage.
One GOP strategist noted the local strategy would not only win Rubio points back home, but also inside the Senate.
“It is the right thing to do in the long run,” the strategist said. “You are viewed with more respect in the Conference and on your committees.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.