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Marco Rubio carefully reclaims spotlight

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., heads to a Washington briefing last week. Appearing on Fox four times during the week, he had to dodge questions about vice presidential ambitions. He said he’s speaking out because the debt issue has come to a head.

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., heads to a Washington briefing last week. Appearing on Fox four times during the week, he had to dodge questions about vice presidential ambitions. He said he’s speaking out because the debt issue has come to a head.

WASHINGTON — The frenzy over Marco Rubio had escalated into what an adviser called a "smoking, overheated machine," which was apparent in the 200 reporters surrounding him at Miami's Biltmore Hotel on election night.

So when he came to Washington, the new senator was to keep a low profile and demonstrate he was ready to buckle down, not seek publicity. He rebuffed hundreds of interview and speaking requests, from Dallas to Brussels.

And then, just as suddenly as Rubio ducked from public view, he re-emerged. Eleven weeks into a six-year term, Rubio has reclaimed the spotlight.

There he was last week on Fox News, four times. On the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. On ABC's Nightline joking about hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj on his iPhone.

The rapid re-entry of one of the Republican Party's brightest stars underscores a media strategy Rubio has executed nearly flawlessly: generate glowing attention for the head-down approach and then even more for stepping out.

It's a balancing act any 2012 presidential candidate would envy.

"Conservatives started talking Rubio for president even before he won his Senate seat," Jonathan Karl said on Nightline. "But in the months since, Rubio has kept the lowest of profiles, focusing on Florida and turning down all national TV interviews. Until now."

Rubio says the nation's fiscal debate drew him out.

"The issues came after us," Rubio said in an interview last week from his temporary basement office. "This is what I ran on, and I want to be a meaningful part of whatever happens."

• • •

Rubio, 39, will continue to face the challenge of meeting supporters' high expectations while keeping an eager media from creating another smoking, overheated machine.

"A politician like Marco Rubio could suffer from overexposure and so far, he's governed it well," said Patrick Davis, a national Republican strategist.

But following the attention is speculation about motives.

"My view, as somebody who's been in this close to 40 years, is Rubio's emergence has absolutely nothing to do with the debt," said Democratic consultant Garry South. "It has to do with Latinos. You saw the census figures."

The new count showed the Hispanic population in the United States grew 43 times faster than the non-Hispanic white population, rising from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010.

The political implications are vast, and in recent years Hispanics have favored Democrats nationally, partly due to GOP calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Rubio will face significant pressure to be the Hispanic face of the party, Davis said, but must approach it carefully.

"He doesn't want to look like he's being exploited," Davis said. "He knows what sold him as a U.S. senator. He's a total package, not just a Hispanic."

The design laid out by Rubio's advisers was to keep low until summer. But Rubio said the debt issues he campaigned on have come to a head and to remain in the shadows would be a failure of office. In the Journal, Rubio said he would refuse to vote for raising the limit on how much the government can borrow unless a series of steps are taken, including reforming Social Security and Medicare, and passing a balanced budget amendment.

He also stepped into foreign policy, sending a letter ("perhaps the boldest move any freshman senator has made," the Weekly Standard crooned) to Senate leaders urging Congress to authorize the military to force a regime change in Libya.

But it did not play out smoothly. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office responded that Rubio seemed "oblivious" to the troops' lives he could put at risk, not to mention the cost to U.S. taxpayers, a seeming jab at Rubio's persistent focus on government spending.

"My concern for the well-being of our troops is no less than yours," Rubio wrote back. "I understand that reflexively attacking the ideas proposed by another member of the opposing party has sadly become the way of the modern Senate. It nonetheless remains my hope that the Senate will endeavor to at least make an exception when it comes to issues of national security."

• • •

For as much as Rubio tries to talk about issues, talk is rampant about his political aspirations. Even as he talked on Fox about the national debt, the first thing Sean Hannity wanted to know was whether Rubio was seeking higher office.

Rubio flatly denies he'll run for president next year, which would recall a young senator from Illinois. With Hannity, he parried talk of vice president but the denial was more nuanced.

"He clearly has to be on a very short list for vice president, if he's interested," said Victor Kamber, a Democratic consultant who has worked with the Clintons. "Barack Obama showed us that you don't need a long resume to capture a nomination. You just need to capture an imagination."

Rubio certainly did in the Senate race. He took on a popular sitting governor and went from one rubber chicken dinner to the next, building a grass roots network.

He harnessed the tea party movement without becoming too attached to harder-edge rhetoric, benefiting from the intense media attention around the movement while avoiding the stigma of being outside the Republican mainstream.

Rubio skipped a tea party rally outside the Capitol on Thursday that featured Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn, a polarizing figure. But the week before, he attended one in Vero Beach, far from the gaze of the national media.

"He's very winsome, very common sense, he doesn't sound radical or right wing, so he's probably one of our party's best spokesmen," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Washington's de facto tea party leader, said.

Rubio's bunker strategy was designed after another senator elected to fanfare — not Obama, but Hillary Rodham Clinton. But while Clinton eschewed the limelight for at least a year after being elected to the Senate, Rubio emerged in less than three months.

"I don't think it's a question of stepping out front or keeping a low profile," said GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos. "I think it's a question of leading. The Republican Party is looking for a new generation to address these issues that the old generation seemed it could not do. There's a vacuum of leadership."

• • •

Rubio denies any deeper calculation behind his coming out. "Again, it was not part of any kind of master plan," he said. The issues, he repeated, could not be ignored.

So he is saying yes to selective media requests his office had been declining by the hundreds. On Fox News Sunday, he got prime exposure but also faced tough questions. Host Chris Wallace questioned if his stance on raising the debt limit was a "stunt" because he knows enough senators will vote yes. Several times Wallace asked if Rubio would hold his position even if he were the deciding vote. Many experts, including Republicans, say not increasing the limit would be a blow to the economy. The freshman lawmaker dodged the question before restating his position.

Rubio's advisers say he'll continue to pick his spots and not abandon his Florida focus. He has traveled the state extensively, meeting with voters and reporters. Over the weekend, he dropped by TV stations in South Florida while managing to celebrate the 11th birthday of his oldest daughter, Amanda.

The goal is to present him as a go-to voice on important issues and avoid becoming one of the talking heads that some lawmakers morph into over the years.

"One of the laws of politics," Castellanos said, "is always leave them hungry."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter@learyspt.

Marco Rubio carefully reclaims spotlight 04/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 3, 2011 11:53pm]
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