For a guy who keeps insisting he has no interest in being vice president, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio appears to be feverishly positioning himself for the job.
Rubio this month took the unusual step of asking the Florida Ethics Commission to close out a complaint that he misused Republican Party and campaign money "to subsidize his lifestyle" while in the Legislature.
His political committee has spent more than $40,000 for investigators to research for negative attacks that could surface against him.
And last week the Florida senator announced he is rushing publication of his memoir to June from February. That will help him frame his story before a presumably less-flattering unauthorized biography is released in July and will ensure him waves of publicity before the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August.
"Marco's saying all the right things, because nobody who wants to be vice president should admit it. But he's bound to be on the nominee's short list and he's smart to prepare for it now,'' said Ana Navarro, a Republican fundraiser and Rubio friend in Miami. "If he does get asked, it will be very hard to say no."
Rubio, 40, repeatedly dismisses the vice presidency chatter and insists he is not quietly angling for the spot or seeking publicity.
"My No. 1 job is not to be some media personality," he said in a recent interview from his office in Washington. "It's to be one of the two senators who represent Florida."
Still, the former state House speaker and his advisers have been nurturing his national image as a principled Republican superstar.
Rubio jumped to the forefront of the debate over White House-mandated rules on birth control, he visited the Mexico border in Texas and called on the GOP to tone down its rhetoric on immigration. After influential antitax activist Grover Norquist criticized the Restore Act dedicating 80 percent of BP oil spill fees to the Gulf Coast, Rubio became the only gulf state senator to vote against the bill. (He said the legislation had changed.)
Following a rousing Rubio speech loaded with anti-President Barack Obama lines at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Rubio adviser Todd Harris escorted a video crew through the crowd to tape activists gushing over Rubio.
"I don't think he's campaigning for vice president, but I think some of his handlers are,'' said Republican fundraiser Ann Herberger of Miami. "His advisers seem to be pushing the VP stuff, but Marco has said time and time again, 'I will not be on the ticket as vice president,' and I believe him."
Just the ticket
No one is mentioned more often as a strong choice for a Republican running mate than Rubio. Young, charismatic and Hispanic, he would add a wow factor to the ticket, but also bring the polish, substance and political savvy that Sarah Palin lacked in 2008.
"He is the best orator of American politics today, a good family man. He is not only a consistent conservative, but he has managed to find a way to communicate a conservative message full of hope and optimism," Jeb Bush told a Pittsburgh reporter last week, calling Rubio the best pick for vice president.
The comments came on the same day Bush said it was time for Republicans to rally around front-runner Mitt Romney. Rubio has not yet endorsed, a reticence that some in Washington view as tied to his political ambitions.
Rubio's moves sometimes seem to be taken, literally, from the influential opinion page of the Wall Street Journal.
Columnist Paul Gigot last month wrote that Rubio would be wise to move up publication of his book to June, which Rubio then did. Gigot wrote that Rubio needed to expose any skeletons lest he become the next Palin or Dan Quayle, vice presidential candidates whose past were a rich well of material for opponents. Three days later, Rubio asked the Florida Ethics Commission to close out a complaint filed during the 2010 Senate race.
"There's no question he's positioning himself. He wants to have this rock out of his knapsack,'' said Tampa attorney and Obama fundraiser Tom Scarritt, a former chairman of the ethics commission who called Rubio's request highly unusual.
Advisers say Rubio has faced intense, sometimes unfair scrutiny, including recent revelations that he was Mormon while his family lived in Las Vegas. Some stories breathlessly speculated whether voters would accept two Mormons on the ticket (Romney is one), ignoring that Rubio was a member of the faith for only a few years as a kid. Given the intense attention on Rubio, advisers say it's only prudent to take such steps as hiring a researcher.
"You make it sound a lot more exciting than it really is," said Rubio. "I think any time you're involved in a political endeavor … it's an ongoing process and you clearly want to be up to date on everything.
"The main thing is you don't ever want to say something that's not true, or be inaccurate, because the way words today are parsed in politics. Everything you say is going to be analyzed very carefully, so you want to make sure everything you say and do is 100 percent accurate."
Rubio says the scrutiny he's enduring is part of the job. But his allies have trumped it up, saying he's being attacked by Democrats out of fear. "Marco makes President Obama and his liberal allies nervous because they know he's different," his political committee says in a fundraising appeal.
Rubio's team zealously guards his image, aggressively pushing back on even mildly negative reports, including the revelation last year that, contrary to his Senate official biography, his parents left Cuba before Fidel Castro took power, not after.
The road ahead
Legislatively, Rubio has little to show after 13 months in office. Asked what he has accomplished, Rubio noted he is in the minority party in the Senate and said he has helped the GOP define its message against Obama's policies.
"I think I've been able to have some influence on it for someone who just got here," he said. "I ran on a very clear platform and that was I believe this president isn't taking us in the right direction."
There's little doubt Rubio would help.
A Fox News poll this month showed almost one-quarter of Latinos say they would be more willing to vote for a Republican if Rubio was on the ticket. His support increased to almost four in 10 in Florida, which is critical to GOP hopes of defeating Obama.
Navarro said Democrats constantly ask her whether she thinks Bush or Rubio would accept a vice presidential nod. For Bush, she gives an emphatic no. Rubio is less clear.
"It's hard enough to say no to a presidential nominee. In this case, Marco would also be saying no to the chance of going down in U.S. history as the first Hispanic on a presidential ticket. I can't imagine him passing that up. Also, Marco is a risk-taker. If he wasn't, he would not have waged a challenge to the heavily favored sitting governor of Florida,'' she said.
"You get the feeling with Marco, he's not planning on growing old in the U.S. Senate."