Sen. Marco Rubio was not one of the leaders of Western Hemisphere nations meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, last weekend. But the Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida — who traveled to the sixth annual Summit of the Americas independently — was certainly treated like one.
Befitting his status as a top vice presidential contender for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Rubio attracted a flurry of attention from the regional press and officials during his visit.
In an interview upon his return from Colombia, Rubio said he wanted to make the trip to engage with Latin American partners and to send a signal that U.S. officials are, in fact, “prioritizing what’s happening in the region.” He said countries in the region have found that “pro-Americanism is not rewarded” by this White House — a situation he wants to change with more robust engagement and assistance to friendly regimes and pro-democracy activists.
The trip to Cartagena for the summit, Rubio’s first to the region since joining the Senate in 2011, highlights not just his growing role as a player on U.S. foreign policy but also some of the political and demographic assets he would bring to Republicans’ 2012 ticket. It also, election watchers say, could help him raise his stock as a potential running mate, by heightening his profile among Latino voters in Western states, where he is still something of an unknown.
Among his engagements during the trip were bilateral meetings with the heads of state of Mexico, Guatemala and Chile as well as with members of Colombia’s Congress and with Cuban exiles. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee member conducted interviews and press availabilities — mainly in Spanish — with Telemundo, the United States’ Spanish language broadcaster; CNN en Español; the Miami Herald; Colombian print publications El Tiempo and Semana magazine; RTVC, CMI and W Radio of Colombia; international Spanish-language station NTN24; and TV Marti, the U.S. government’s broadcaster to Cuba.
El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest circulation daily, ran a Q-and-A with Rubio, in Spanish, the day the summit kicked off, highlighting his Cuban-American roots and the fact that he is married to a Colombian-American. And the reporter peppered him with questions about a potential 2012 vice presidential run.
Rubio repeatedly insisted he had “no other aspiration” than helping get Romney elected, though his denials have not exactly been Shermanesque.
Romney could certainly use the help among Hispanic voters. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted April 4-15, President Barack Obama leads Romney by 40 points among registered Hispanic voters. At 27 percent, Romney is not even matching the 31 percent of the Hispanic vote that Republican nominee John McCain won in 2008.
The Romney and Obama campaigns are now stepping up their outreach to Hispanic voters in key swing states such as Florida, Nevada and Arizona.
Experts on Latino voting behavior say Rubio’s appearances in Spanish language media outlets no doubt resonated with Latinos in the United States. But University of Washington professor Matt A. Barreto, who conducts polling on Latino voters as part of the firm Latino Decisions, emphasized that the freshman Senator is starting from a low bar.
In a poll Barreto oversaw in January, 60 percent of registered Latino voters across the country said they had no opinion or had never heard of Rubio. Twenty-five percent of those voters said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential ticket if Rubio is on it, while 19 percent said they would be less likely to do so. In Florida, he’s far more recognized — and popular. According to the January poll, 54 percent of Latino voters in Florida viewed him favorably and 24 percent unfavorably.
“He definitely has a lot of work to do on his name recognition,” Barreto said, particularly among the predominantly Mexican-American voters out West.
He also predicted that as Rubio becomes better known nationally, his unfavorables among Hispanic voters will also go higher, given what Barreto said have been inconsistencies on the key issue of immigration. “He’s going to have a lot of advocacy groups on the left who are attacking him,” Barreto predicted.
That may be part of the reason Rubio has looked to emphasize his foreign policy credentials — a key concern for vice presidential nominees, particularly ones who are relatively inexperienced on the national stage. As the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, the Peace Corps and Global Narcotics Affairs, he has been active on issues ranging from Syria to Cuba to foreign aid.
He butted heads with the Obama administration over policy toward Latin America during his first year in office, particularly the White House response to anti-democratic activities in Cuba and Nicaragua. In general, he has knocked the president for neglecting relations with the United States’ neighbors to the south.
Rubio put a hold on two of the administration’s State Department nominees last year because he was seeking changes in parts of their Latin American foreign policy.
But coming out of Cartagena, Rubio struck an unexpectedly optimistic tone about the administration’s policy toward Latin America. Though Rubio traveled as a representative of the Foreign Relations Committee, he was not part of the president’s official delegation, which did include a few lawmakers.
Still, the Senator said he was pleased with Obama’s stances at the summit, including Obama’s opposition to legalizing the drug trade and including Cuba in future summits — both of which were being pushed by a range of Latin American leaders. Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. tend to be “very concerned about what’s happening back in their countries of origin,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “I imagine they knew Sen. Rubio was [in Columbia] while the rest of the country didn’t.”
Along with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s recent high-profile trip to Washington, Rubio said he hoped the summit “will be the beginning of a new era of engagement, which will be very positive for the country” — particularly when it comes to energy and trade.
Those aren’t exactly the words of the fire-breathing attack dog that some GOP partisans might be looking for in their vice presidential nominee. But statesmanship in the Spanish-speaking world is valued by U.S. Latinos — something Romney might be considering.