WASHINGTON — Being on the losing team never felt so good. Just don't expect U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to acknowledge it.
"My trip to Iowa has nothing to do with 2016," he said Thursday, a remark no one in Washington took seriously, even though Rubio pointed out the visit was set up months ago and that he expected Mitt Romney would be seeking re-election in four years.
Yet there was Rubio on Saturday evening in the state that holds the first nominating contest, giving a keynote speech at a birthday fundraiser for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
Absurd as it may seem — the next presidential election is 48 months away — potential contenders are taking faint steps, and Rubio has claimed his spot in the fray. Two years ago, he defied convention by winning a Senate seat on the winds of the tea party. Now he is propelled by a demographic crisis.
"It's obvious to one and all that the Republican Party cannot put together a winning coalition by getting a larger and larger share of a smaller and smaller number of white voters," said Rubio's pollster Whit Ayres. "We need to reach out aggressively to nonwhite voters, and Marco Rubio will be a key voice."
Romney's bitter complaint last week that President Barack Obama won by giving policy "gifts" to young women, blacks and Hispanics underscored the challenge — and the opportunity for Rubio, 41 and the son of Cuban immigrants, to represent a new generation of Republicans.
The party has a strong list of possible contenders, from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Romney running mate Paul Ryan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. As Rubio continues to expand his profile, critics will increase scrutiny.
"The wattage goes up significantly on the bulb that shines once you try to emerge on the national stage," said Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, which will happily share a dossier, hundreds of pages long, that opposition researchers assembled on Rubio as he was being considered for Romney's running mate.
Rubio was one of Romney's top surrogates, soaking up exposure in key states including Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. He did 60 events and so many interviews his staff lost count, more than 30 alone on the day of the first presidential debate in Denver.
Rubio, naturally, denies any plans other than serving in the Senate (his first term expires in 2016) but says he wants to be a leading figure in shaping the future of the GOP. During an Atlantic magazine forum Thursday, he said his modest background provides "insight into what our party should be more about."
Invoking a shrinking middle class, he said Republicans "need to show how limited government and free enterprise principles can turn that around. And if we do, I think we'll be successful. And if we don't, I think we'll have more days like last Tuesday."
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Romney's defeat brought many lessons, none more stark than the problem Republicans face with Hispanics. Obama took 71 percent of the vote, a bigger share than his 2008 victory despite a tough economy. Because Hispanics are the fastest growing group in the country and the white vote is declining, Republicans must perform better or perish.
Party leaders have turned to Rubio to address a newfound interest in immigration reform, but Rubio's own experience tracks the gyrations the GOP has felt on the issue.
After adopting some of the harder-line positions in his 2010 Senate run, he began work earlier this year on an alternative to the Dream Act. Instead of creating a pathway to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, Rubio wanted to grant them legal status. Time dragged on and Rubio never produced his plan.
He said he wanted to get it right but the proposal, which he says is still under development, was also under attack from conservatives, who said it was amnesty. Obama stepped in with a directive that gave young undocumented residents protection against deportation. In a sense Rubio was spared, but it also called into question his ability to deliver.
Obama this week said he wants a full immigration overhaul, starting with passage of the Dream Act.
Prominent Republicans say the party must come to the table, but Rubio is taking a careful approach, perhaps unsure how far to brush up against the conservative base that would play a role in his future goals.
He was noncommittal Thursday on a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, noting "progress is being made" but saying whatever is done should not "incentivize" more illegal entry. Rubio focused instead on improvements to the legal immigration system, suggesting more workers in agriculture and construction would be needed as the economy improves and saying family unification is key. A spokesman, Alex Conant, said Rubio prefers a "sequential" approach but would not prejudge broader efforts.
Some advisers worry Rubio will be typecast by immigration. "Marco really needs to be outspoken on the issue because of the credibility he has, but he can't own the issue," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "He should continue to be a generalist."
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At times, Rubio seems to be trying to construct the perfect, well-rounded candidate, an antitax Republican with crossover appeal. He's been critical of Obama on foreign policy, fiscal issues and health care, but also joined forces with Democrats on a series of lower-end business measures and pursued niche issues such as human trafficking. As early as next month, he will push a package of policies focused on "upward mobility" of poor people.
Rubio, who has drawn praise from colleagues on both sides of the aisle, has also watched his tone. While fellow foreign policy hawk Sen. John McCain railed last week against comments U.N. Secretary Susan Rice gave after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, Rubio was decidedly measured and said he would not automatically block her possible nomination to head the State Department.
"I think if you're going to have a fair process to evaluate someone, you can't go in having already made up your mind," he said at the Washington Ideas Forum on Thursday.
Just a few days earlier, however, Rubio stressed to reporters that he thought Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should be called to testify on what happened, stoking Washington talk of a 2016 showdown. If she runs, Clinton will certainly emerge as a front-runner among Democrats.
A postelection National Journal poll of insiders showed Republicans think Rubio is the strongest candidate for president, followed by Jeb Bush, one of the undisputed heavyweights of Florida politics. During a rally in Miami a week before the election, Rubio and Bush stood on stage with Romney but it was Rubio's name the crowd shouted, and when it came time to introduce the candidate, Rubio stepped forward.
"I don't think we'll see that contest. I know we won't," Cardenas said. "I know for a fact one or the other may run but they both aren't going to run against each other."
Contact Alex Leary at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.