Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign stop in Hooksett, N.H. (Photo:Jim Cole/AP)
Marco Rubio’s top campaign adviser couldn’t contain his glee at the prospect of discussing the presidential candidate’s Spartan spending habits on the day Scott Walker dropped out of the Republican primary, in part because of profligate spending.
“We’ve run such a lean campaign at times, taken knocks for it. But keeping control of the budget is such an important thing,” said Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Rubio, the U.S. senator from Florida.
At an event hosted by Google and the National Review at Google’s Washington headquarters near Union Station, Sullivan boasted how every staffer has taken a pay cut to work for Rubio, how they sell bumper stickers and yard signs rather than giving them away, how Rubio flies commercial 95 percent of the time he travels (the other 5 percent is on a private jet) and how he, Sullivan, personally monitors every significant purchase.
“Every expense of over $500 in the entire campaign, I sign a piece of paper on. It is a giant pain in the ass,” he said, clearly pleased. Moments later, he said, “It’s working. It creates a culture and a mindset that’s very different.”
“It’s a state of mind. We’re all here for one person. It’s Marco. It’s not about us,” Sullivan said.
This fiscal discipline was a reason for bullishness on a day when Walker had to admit to his aides that the “finances just aren’t there,” having hired 90 staffers in a premature buildup. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry withdrew last week, also for money reasons. Perry’s campaign had hoped for $4 million and budgeted for around $2.5 million but ended up raising only a little bit more than $1 million from donors.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., meanwhile, has raised very little money and has barely registered in the polls but has been able to stay in the race so far because, as his campaign manager Christian Ferry said Monday at the Google event, “We’re running a small, disciplined, flexible mobile campaign that we can afford.”
Graham’s campaign staff numbers about a dozen, Ferry said. “That’s the campaign we’ve had planned from day one,” he said.
By contrast, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised the most money of any candidate in the first half of 2015 but also has a bigger campaign than Rubio and is now facing questions from restless donors about why he has been unable to stop current frontrunner Donald Trump. Bush’s campaign has said they are running a “lean” campaign, but recent reports have indicated some reductions in staff pay and an increase in Bush’s travel on commercial airlines instead of private jets.
Sullivan, a baldheaded, bearded political operative from South Carolina, stood in the back of a room as Bush’s campaign manager, Danny Diaz, was interviewed by National Review editor Rich Lowry. When Diaz tweaked him by name over Rubio’s political struggles with the issue of immigration reform, Sullivan couldn’t resist speaking out from the audience.
“Keep talking, Danny, you’re doing a great job,” he said, smiling daggers before looking back down at his phone.
Rubio is well positioned. He has been particularly impressive on the national stage through the first two debates. His strategy has been to hit singles and doubles in the early days of the campaign and to stay below the radar for as long as possible.
“He is not going to make headlines every day. He’s not going to be the guy at any debate that comes up with the best one-liner of the debate,” Sullivan told Lowry. “I believe that voters want to elect a president they can drink a beer with but they know is responsible enough not to drink too much so they can drive them home afterwards.”
Sullivan noted that in 2008 at this point in the race, Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama in the Democratic primary by 16 points and that four years ago Perry was the Republican frontrunner by 11 points.
“I’ve said a lot [that] early polls don’t mean anything. It turns out I was wrong. They mean if you are in first place in the second week of September, you are guaranteed to not be the nominee of your party,” Sullivan said. “There’d be nothing worse than being in first place right now. It’s terrible. We were there for a short while, and that was actually the time we were most concerned, because the New York Times writes stories about how big the windows are on your house.”
Rubio did vault into second place in May after he announced his candidacy. But he kept a low profile in the weeks afterward, in an obvious attempt to move back toward the middle of the pack.
Over the summer, the conventional wisdom about Rubio was that he was unable to gain traction, but now he looks poised to move up in the polls. It will be trickier now to keep to his middle-of-the-pack game plan than it was in the spring, but Sullivan said that will remain the campaign’s strategy.
However, Walker’s exit suddenly transformed the Republican primary into a two-man race — for now at least — between Bush and Rubio for the establishment lane.
But Rubio will have to contend now with the TV air cover that Bush is receiving from the super-PAC supporting him, Right to Rise. The group began airing $24 million worth of ads in the first two primary states — Iowa and New Hampshire — last week, and is starting to run them in South Carolina this week. The ads will run through the end of 2015.
A veteran Republican consultant said the polling over the next two weeks will show whether the Bush ads have their intended effect, which would be to pull Bush back toward the front of the pack. That may suit Rubio’s campaign fine.
“Ideally,” Sullivan said, “I would want to be in first place on one day” — the day the primaries end. If Rubio gets there a little earlier, Sullivan added, “I’m OK with that.”