WASHINGTON — As he thrusts himself into the national spotlight, inviting speculation about vice presidential ambitions, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is also drawing tougher scrutiny over his words and actions.
He has been assailed on national TV for saying government programs have "weakened us as a people," subjected to negative political ads and labeled a traitor by pro-immigration groups.
"I ran for the U.S. Senate, not the West Miami City Council," Rubio said Wednesday. "I get it. It's just a normal part of the process."
But there are also attacks in darker corners of the Internet, questioning whether he is a natural-born citizen (his parents were Cuban exiles) as well as the type of dirt-digging a presidential candidate might expect. A Miami TV station recently carried a report about a major drug bust that netted his brother-in-law — in 1987.
Rubio, 40, has pursued an elaborately scripted path since taking office in January. He eschewed national media just long enough to gain the label that he was focused on Florida and learning the ways of the Senate. Glowing national TV profiles followed as did a series of speeches his office aggressively promoted as "major" addresses, much in the way presidential candidates do, or the president himself.
Tuesday at the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina, he made the case for more hawkish foreign policy, saying the United States has an obligation to defend itself and others. It drew some notice, but nothing like his Aug. 23 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Cast as the next "great communicator," Rubio exposed himself to a fierce backlash from the left when he said government programs have "weakened us as a people."
MSNBC host Ed Schultz blistered Rubio for two days on air, saying he was attacking Social Security and Medicare. A liberal group, Americans United for Change, paid for Facebook ads that said Rubio "called seniors lazy."
Rubio did not call seniors lazy, and has said his mother has benefited from Social Security and Medicare. He has called for saving them through reforms, not abolishing them. His comments also were directed at welfare.
"The government does have an important role to play in taking care of our people," he said Wednesday. "But so do we. … These programs were created to be an addition to the things we used to do as a society, not instead of the things we do as a society."
"Virtually everyone who saw that speech without an agenda understood the point of it," he added. "They don't want to have a debate on what I really said."
The line stuck, however, spreading across the Internet and making its way onto TV, usually a coveted spot for an ambitious politician.
WTSP-Ch.10 news commentator Scott Farrell, who has run for office as a Democrat, called Rubio's words "an insult to the greatest generation and everybody else who has taken Social Security. I think the senator needs to look who his constituents are and maybe reassess what he said."
The Miami Herald, Rubio's hometown paper, published an op-ed by former Democratic state lawmaker Dan Gelber ripping Rubio as pandering to the right wing and wondering, "Was this the same Marco Rubio who first ran (for state House) on a platform of early childhood education and affordable housing for the elderly?"
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Rubio's speech, "He'll learn," but stopped short of saying "weakened us" was a rhetorical mistake.
"He's a good solid guy and there'll be a lot of efforts to ding him up because he's a rising star," Graham said. "But I think he'll meet the challenge."
Rubio's harder line on illegal immigration has also been called into contrast with his more moderate views as a state lawmaker, where several tough law enforcement bills died under his watch as House speaker.
The shift was noticeable as Rubio ran for Senate last year. He opposes the DREAM Act, which would give some children of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and has co-sponsored a bill calling for a mandatory employee background checks. Rubio says immigration reform is needed but only after the borders are secured.
"I guess he's trying to keep himself viable for the veepstakes," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group that has hammered Rubio's positions.
"He's gone from struggling to find a tea party friendly position that wouldn't seem so anti-Hispanic to coming down on a full-throated position that makes him subject to easy attacks. . . . We're going to stay on him."
Dave Beattie, a Democratic pollster in Florida, said there hasn't been much focus on Rubio's words until now because the Senate race was largely about the showdown with former Gov. Charlie Crist, and since Rubio won, the storyline has been his meteoric rise.
"The tea party rhetoric that he had in the 2010 campaign is now getting more scrutiny as that same rhetoric by the presidential candidates," Beattie said.
A growing number of Republican insiders think Rubio is actively laying the groundwork for higher office. Certainly he would be a top pick for any of the presidential candidates. The major ones have reached out to him, including Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann.
Rubio continues to deny he'll be a vice presidential pick and said the topic has not even come up in talks.
"One of the reasons I ran for Senate was ability to influence politics in America on critical issues," he said. "Those formats, those places and those speeches give me an opportunity to do that."