Marco Rubio Makes His Move For 2016

Beth Reinhard

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio hasn’t popped up in an early-primary state in six months, leaving potential Republican rivals like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to make the rounds while he carried the torch for his immigration reform plan.

But while furiously working the talk show circuit to sell a bill viewed warily by many Republican voters, Rubio has been just as doggedly laying the groundwork for a successful presidential campaign in 2016.

Since he became the first possible contender in November to swoop into Iowa, which hosts the first nominating contest, Rubio aired the first television ad from his Reclaim America leadership committee on behalf of Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, which traditionally votes second on the primary calendar; formed a joint fundraising committee that makes it easier to collect big donations; and reversed his position on Florida’s presidential primary, greasing a bill through the Legislature that would ensure the state earns a full slate of convention delegates in 2016.

“It’s good for Florida’s favorite son,” said David Johnson, a former executive director of the Florida Republican Party. Asked if he meant Rubio, Johnson added, “Any of Florida’s favorite sons, whether it’s Marco Rubio or (former Gov.) Jeb Bush on the ballot.”

Beyond the logistical moves, Rubio is latching onto issues that, unlike immigration reform, excite his conservative base. His latest and juiciest target: the IRS, for singling out tea party groups for special scrutiny.

“Rubio has gone full bore on the IRS,” said Republican consultant Keith Appell, who is active in the conservative movement.  “Immigration is a tough, tough fight he may not win, and these scandals are giving him a bit of a reprieve to talk about something else.”

Rubio was the first member of Congress to call for the resignation of the IRS chief, pre-empting President Obama’s first public comments on the controversy. Rubio followed up his demand Monday morning with a bill that would make it a crime for IRS employees to target political groups, a fiery speech on the Senate floor, and a flurry of television appearances in which he also condemned the administration’s response to the Benghazi attacks and the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records.

As the son of Cuban immigrants who saw their homeland taken over by a repressive regime, Rubio brings a personal fury to the scandals in Washington.

“These are the tactics of the Third World,” he said on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday. "These are the tactics of places that don’t have the freedoms and the independence that we have here in this country.”

Rubio’s leadership committee has sent out two e-mail blasts this week to capitalize on outrage over the IRS scandal. “Your donation will ensure that we have the resources to take this fight to the highest levels possible,” the missive said. “Together we’ll turn back the frightening tide of our rapidly expanding, unaccountable government.”

A second e-mail presented a petition protesting the IRS’s tactics. After submitting personal information, the web site sends supporters to a fundraising page for Reclaim America.

The IRS controversy adds to a growing portfolio that will help inoculate Rubio from being pigeonholed as the Hispanic senator who wants to allow 11 million illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. He’s sponsoring a bill called the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” which would help students get data about the costs of a college education. When he delivered the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union speech, he railed against the president’s health care law and tax hikes on the wealthy. Rubio rarely misses an opportunity to weigh in on an issue -- whether it’s Obama’s Cabinet appointments, the Internet sales tax, or the civil war in Syria – and the media is always willing to oblige the charismatic political comer with a quote or a television hit.

“He’s leading on the immigration issue, and I’m grateful, but he’s also stacking one brick after another, and people down the road will see what he is doing,” said Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry. “He’s leading on a lot of issues.”

And it was Rubio who quietly pushed Florida’s Republican–controlled Legislature to tack a last-minute change to a sweeping election bill, moving back Florida’s presidential primary so that it would comply with national party rules. The move came seven years after Rubio, then a rising star in the Florida Legislature, led the charge to move the state’s primary to its earliest date ever so that it would have the biggest impact on the nominating process.

“Florida is the microcosm of the entire nation,” Rubio told The Miami Herald in March 2006. “With all due respect to New Hampshire and Iowa, nowhere are you going to be on a national stage like Florida.”

Rubio allies say he changed his mind because the national party ratcheted up the penalties for states that flouted its calendar. The winner of Florida’s 2016 presidential primary would have reaped only 12 delegates instead of 99 if the state kept its early primary in January or early February. (It received 50 in 2012.) Under the new law, the primary is expected to be in early March, depriving Florida of its early imprint on the race but ensuring it will make a big difference in the delegate count.

Rubio’s reversal earned him a “full flop” from Politifact.

In addition to losing delegates, Florida was assigned a far-flung hotel even though the 2012 convention was held in Tampa, forcing participants to endure long bus rides to get to the event.

“We don’t want to have to go through the same mess we went through last year,” said Curry, the party chairman. “I thought moving up the primary was a good idea because Florida ought to have a big voice given the size and diversity of our state, but it turned out to be a pretty painful process.”

About one week after Florida set the new primary date, Rubio’s Reclaim America organization began airing an ad defending Sen. Ayotte for voting against expanding background checks for gun buyers. The spot looks like a commercial for Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, showing images of attractive mothers cuddling their babies before featuring Ayotte. “Safety, security, family. No one understands these things like a mom, and no one works harder for them than this one.”

The "six-figure" media buy is noteworthy because until now, Rubio has spent much of his leadership committee money on political consultants, fundraising and direct mail.

Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and the founder of a pro-immigration reform group, noted that Ayotte will be a key vote on the bill. “Maybe Sen. Rubio is just being a nice guy,” Cullen quipped. “It’s a win-win-win. It’s good all around. It’s good for Rubio.”