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.”
Rubio has taken his time and been deliberate in his transition to Washington. He has yet to give his maiden speech on the Senate floor — a rite of passage for all freshmen. And after a long and extensive search for a chief of staff, Rubio announced just last week he hired Cesar Conda, a former Hill aide and lobbyist described as a policy wonk.
Also last week, Rubio was appointed to the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, nearly a week after traveling to Afghanistan with a group of lawmakers that included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Al Cardenas, a former Florida Republican Party chairman and Rubio supporter, said that if Rubio paid attention to all of the requests by national media, he would not have time to “spend in his state delivering his message [and] spend time developing deeper bonds with his supporters.”
Cardenas added that unlike Senators from smaller states, Rubio has 13 media markets in Florida alone to keep him busy and that the time to have a national profile could come later.
“That’ll come in due time,” he said. “First he needs to focus on being the best Senator he can be and keep in touch with [his constituents].”
The young, conservative former Speaker of the Florida House exploded onto the national scene last year as the alternative to then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP Senate primary. What began as an underfunded long-shot campaign transformed into a highly sophisticated operation after Rubio began to draw support from national conservatives — DeMint being a key early figure — and groups.
After Rubio posted jaw-dropping fundraising numbers, it became clear that Crist could not win the Republican nomination, and he launched an Independent bid that ultimately imploded. Rubio won the three-way contest with 49 percent, with Crist garnering 30 percent and former Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) capturing 20 percent.
At 39, Rubio is the second-youngest member of the Senate and the chamber’s only Hispanic Republican.
Harris said the decision to focus on Florida was made before Rubio won the competitive three-way Senate race.
“We knew if Marco won, the spotlight on him would start shining on Wednesday morning and so this was something we had to think about,” he said.
Diaz-Balart said Rubio is a natural magnet for national attention and speculation for higher office — including having his name already dropped in the 2012 vice presidential mix — regardless of whether he wants it.
“He is exceedingly eloquent and inspirational, but what makes him special is he’ll learn the process and the issues,” Diaz-Balart said. “He gets it because of his great abilities.”
Rubio’s future in the party began to be discussed among politicians and pundits before he took the oath of office — predictions that Harris dismissed.
“It’s not the voters of Florida’s fault that the national press endlessly speculates about Marco’s future,” he said. “We go out of the way to be accessible to Florida press to talk about what he’s doing.”
Harris added that one of the things that has drawn the press to Rubio is his ability to say something thoughtful when it matters.
“He doesn’t have anything to say right now,” he said. “Until there is a message he wants to communicate, going on national television is just contributing to the noise.”
Correction: Jan. 31, 2011
The article incorrectly stated that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the youngest Senator. He is the second youngest. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is younger by seven days.