Marco Rubio is facing the most consequential decision of his political career since entering the U.S. Senate campaign that made him a national figure: to seek re-election or to run for president.
The next 12 months will shape his choice and it comes with an intriguing twist because both offices are open in 2016. Florida law bars a federal candidate from appearing twice on the same ballot but Rubio can essentially chase the presidency without surrendering the safer re-election campaign.
"The question for anyone in public office is, 'Is there another place from which I can pursue these things I believe in and be even more effective?' " the Republican senator said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
He says he'll reach a conclusion around this time next year, but he'll have to drop strong clues this year.
"I really can't tell you today where I'll be. A lot can change between now and then."
The uncertainly belies a carefully planned, if not always seen, effort by Rubio and his team to position for a presidential bid. He has raised millions through his Reclaim America PAC, investing in consultants and growing a national donor base. Rubio also has been meeting with top fundraisers in New York, California, Florida and other moneyed states.
In April, while in Las Vegas to attend a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting, Rubio sat down with Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who used super PACs to spend at least $100 million in the 2012 presidential election.
Rubio has begun writing his second book, on the future of the country and the Republican Party, which will come out after the fall midterm elections, just as presidential hype soars, affording a platform, publicity and travel opportunities.
"The goal for those of us on his team is to keep as many doors open as possible, so that no matter what he decides, we'll be ready," said Todd Harris, a chief strategist.
Rubio, who left Saturday for a weeklong tour of Asia, his second overseas trip since December, has worked to build a profile on foreign policy, and this month he claimed a spot in the growing debate over poverty and a declining middle class.
Those steps, people close to him say, go hand in hand with either course he may pursue.
Rubio, 42 and a father of four, offers a third option, however unconvincingly, that he could drop out of elective politics altogether.
"I never viewed myself as someone who is going to be here for 30 years," he said of the Senate.
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Rubio opens the critical year with his stock diminished, no longer widely seen as the Republican Savior, as a Time magazine cover story cast him in February 2013. His work on comprehensive immigration reform incensed conservative activists and left him desperate to change the subject, leading him into a fruitless budget war against the Affordable Care Act that led to a government shutdown.
Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas have absorbed some of the spotlight, and dysfunctional Washington has made governors — and ex-governors such as Jeb Bush, who is also considering a run — look more attractive as national leaders and innovators.
Rubio, to hear the spin, is comfortable being a step from the top at this point, away from the hyper-scrutiny that Gov. Chris Christie is enduring in New Jersey, looking less like an operator.
"There's less buzz, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing," said Rubio friend and CNN political commentator Ana Navarro. "It allows him the freedom of being a legislator.
"He has the luxury of waiting," Navarro added. "He's got good name ID. He's proven to be a strong campaigner. He's probably the most eloquent of any potential 2016er and he's got impressive fundraising capability."
Even with the immigration trouble, Rubio raised an eye-opening $8 million in 2013. Most of what he has spent has gone to consultants and building the donor network. Rubio has begun to open up the bank to other candidates, most recently Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton, and plans to step that up, along with traveling to events and doing fundraisers.
An indicator of Rubio's intentions will come this year if he travels to the early presidential selection states Iowa and New Hampshire.
"He needs to begin to cultivate an organization," said Tom Rath, who has advised a litany of presidential candidates, including George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, in the Granite State. "Some of the people you want on your team will be recruited this year."
Rubio, who visited Iowa in November 2012 for a birthday fundraiser for Gov. Terry Branstad, kept out of both states in 2013. But he used his PAC to spend $150,000 on TV ads defending New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte against attacks from gun control advocates.
"He realized Ayotte has a future in the Senate. But he's also probably just trying to keep the opportunities open for himself," said Jamie Burnett, a GOP strategist in the state. "Those ads were a bigger deal than any of the events other potential presidential candidates did here. People took notice."
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If Rubio decides to feel out the terrain in Iowa, he'll have to confront immigration. He helped write the Senate's comprehensive bill, which included a massive security buildup but also a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions of unauthorized residents. As a Senate candidate Rubio deemed this "amnesty" but he reversed course and initially it looked as though the son of Cuban immigrants could use his conservative credentials to tame a vexing issue.
It didn't work out and Rubio's national standing took a hit. In August, he was heckled at a conservative gathering in Orlando while Cruz, who opposed the bill, was given a standing ovation. Polls this early should be taken as something just above entertainment, but the drop has been measurable.
"It's going to be a stumbling block," said Chuck Laudner, a Republican activist in Iowa. "People are disappointed. Being the face of amnesty in Washington guarantees that's all he'll get to talk about when he comes here."
Laudner, who said Rubio is solid on the other issues and is a viable candidate, raised the prospect that some may see Rubio as too inexperienced, something conservatives say about President Barack Obama, who launched his 2008 presidential bid before finishing his first term in the Senate. (Rubio has noted he served nine years in the Florida Legislature, including a term as House speaker.)
David Kochel, who advised Romney in Iowa, said he thinks the party's thirst for a new direction could fit Rubio, and immigration shows he is willing to take on big issues. "It's not enough to just come out here and beat up on Obamacare," he said. "The party needs ideas and he looks like the kind of guy who is doing that."
Rubio continues to bash the health care law, so strenuously it seems he's motivated as much by policy disagreement as getting right with the conservative base, but said he'll spend 2014 focused on income mobility issues.
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Obama began running for president just over two years into his six-year term as senator. Had he lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Rodham Clinton, he could have comfortably landed back on Capitol Hill. Rubio has no such insurance. His Senate seat is up for re-election in 2016 and Florida law prevents a federal candidate from seeking two offices on the same ballot.
Rubio does have considerable wiggle room. He could explore a presidential bid in 2015 and run in early presidential primaries. He would not be an official presidential candidate until after the GOP convention in the summer, and only then would he have to withdraw as a Senate candidate.
Even so, there are practical obstacles to trying to do both, not least being the mixed message to voters. And Republican candidates wanting to replace Rubio in the Senate would pressure him to make a decision as early as possible.
Rubio also will have to consider moves former Gov. Bush may make. It's assumed Rubio would defer to his mentor, but both are keeping plans close.
"I haven't really discussed that with him at any point," Rubio said. "I have tremendous respect for him. He's been a huge influence on my career."
Democrats are not waiting for Rubio to make up his mind.
"We've continued to dig into things and have monitored every floor speech, every press conference, we capture all the hearings, every radio interview, television interview. We record everything he's saying," said Chris Harris of American Bridge, a research group and super PAC.
Harris said the organization would seek to illustrate issues from the past, including Rubio's use of a GOP credit card as a top state legislator and campaign accounting problems. Voters in early presidential states, he said, "They just know this fresh face from Florida when there's a whole lot more to Marco Rubio."
Rubio has been underestimated before. His 2010 Senate campaign looked like a fantasy against then-Gov. Charlie Crist. But Rubio resisted friends' attempts to push him out of the race (he came as close as writing a speech explaining the decision to quit) and ascended with the tea party, a masterful confluence of intransigence, timing and message. He is a relentless political mind but publicly says he's at ease with going slow this time.
"It would be a mistake for me to spend all day thinking about these things," Rubio said. "It impedes your ability to do your job."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] and follow on Twitter @learyreports.