New senators send signal by humility, or lack thereof

Sen. Marco Rubio, who spoke this month to Pinellas County Republicans in St. Petersburg, passes up high-profile national gatherings and didn’t join the new Tea Party Caucus.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Sen. Marco Rubio, who spoke this month to Pinellas County Republicans in St. Petersburg, passes up high-profile national gatherings and didn’t join the new Tea Party Caucus.

WASHINGTON — After another quiet appearance on the Senate floor, Sen. Marco Rubio, the heralded freshman Republican from Florida, quickly made his way back to his office, avoiding eye contact with a phalanx of reporters in the Capitol basement.

Not long after Rubio's exit, a second rookie Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, charged in the opposite direction, hurrying to the chamber to challenge an aviation measure that had strong backing from both parties.

The sharp contrast between the styles of two conservatives who became national figures in last year's campaigns — and the varied approaches of others in the Senate's freshmen class — show that political goals, ambition, experience and personality are as crucial as tradition in shaping a congressional entrance strategy.

Some, like Paul and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., seem to view the old Senate rituals of biding one's time and deferring to senior members as passe. They joined the fray on the Senate floor almost as soon as they took their hands off the Bible after being sworn in.

"It might be somewhat my style to hit things on the head and not be too bashful about it," said Paul, who gave his first speech less than a month into his term, a break from the tradition of waiting considerably longer before having the temerity to speak.

Rubio, who was embraced by conservatives nationwide when he opposed and ultimately defeated former Gov. Charlie Crist, has taken the completely opposite tack. He eschews national political coverage and talks primarily to the state news media. He has passed up high-profile gatherings like the recent conservative conference in favor of events back home. And unlike Paul, he did not join the Senate's new Tea Party Caucus despite having been backed by tea party advocates.

"First and foremost he has a responsibility to the people who elected him in Florida and that is where the focus of his work is," said Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Rubio. "The schedule reflects that as much as his public appearances."

In moving into hunker-down mode, Rubio is following in the footsteps of previous celebrity senators who did not want to aggravate their new constituents by striking a high-profile national pose too early in their tenures.

At the beginning of her Senate career, Hillary Rodham Clinton put her energy almost exclusively into New York media and issues, though she was seen even then as a potential presidential candidate. Sen. Al Franken, a former Saturday Night Live writer and performer, still does not typically talk to the news media from outside his state of Minnesota despite being a member of the Senate since mid 2009.

Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who came to the Senate by knocking off Sen. Tom Daschle — then the Democratic leader — also homed in on parochial concerns upon his arrival in 2005.

Rubio, in the view of many analysts and colleagues, is planning a longer term. The thinking is that Rubio, the 39-year-old former Florida House speaker, needs to build credibility and establish himself as a serious senator if he is to take advantage of a promising future. Even with his lower profile, Rubio is still regularly mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate.

For his part, Paul said he did not come to the Senate to be a shrinking violet, and if his early assertiveness has political repercussions, so be it.

New senators send signal by humility, or lack thereof 02/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 8:36pm]

    

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