Sen. Marco Rubio is on a breathless rise, a testament to his political skill and demographic appeal that last week saw him delivering the Republican State of the Union response and appearing on the cover of Time as "The Republican Savior." But behind the scenes is a relentless, methodical effort to build the Rubio brand, aided by a team of strategists and media handlers positioning the 41-year-old Floridian for an expected presidential run.
They include members of Rubio's Senate staff and presidential campaign veterans who work for the political committee Rubio formed ostensibly to help elect other conservatives.
Instead, the Reclaim America PAC has focused on consultants and building a national fundraising network. Last year, his PAC spent more than $1.7 million, with the vast majority going toward staff and fundraising, and about $110,000 going to other candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"It connotes a machine, someone who is grooming his image for a jump to higher position," said the center's executive director Sheila Krumholz.
Rubio's team plots policy and publicity moves, including his recent foray into the immigration debate. He was among eight senators working on a proposal, but Rubio took them by surprise — and ensured he would be front and center — with a Wall Street Journal piece laying out the framework before the group announced it.
The Rubio machine cultivates the image of a new breed of Republican, youthful, and as at ease talking about Tupac and the Miami Dolphins as talking about budget deficits. At the same time advisers dole out nuggets to the news media, they aggressively contest even the smallest points in articles.
The political fascination with Rubio has made it easier for his team to build helpful story lines. When he first took office in the U.S. Senate, it was Rubio the humble, political star keeping his head down. That was followed with periodic "major" policy rollouts — foreign policy, job creation, the middle class. When Rubio gives a speech it's invariably a "major" address. A young assistant is always there to record it on video and take photographs.
"It's almost like he's the Backstreet Boy of American politics, a Hollywood creation of what a model political candidate should be," said Chris Ingram, a Republican communications consultant from Tampa who has been critical of Rubio. "He has to deliver on the hype, but from a P.R. perspective, it's textbook."
And constant. Last week, Rubio issued 17 press releases. By comparison, former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, another potential 2016 candidate, released three.
• • •
Rubio's political inner circle includes PAC employees Heath Thompson and Terry Sullivan, two operatives who made their names in South Carolina's bare-knuckled political culture and are close with former Sen. Jim DeMint. The hyper-competitive Thompson is a college football fanatic more comfortable in a baseball cap than suit and tie.
For broad messaging strategy, there is the roguishly charming Todd Harris who knows practically everybody in the political media and is never shy about excoriating reporters.
The Senate staff includes Alberto Martinez, who goes back to Rubio's days as speaker of the Florida House and can anticipate where critics might attack Rubio, and Alex Burgos, another Rubio campaign alum and true believer who pushes back at any hint of negativity in Rubio coverage.
At the center is Rubio himself: charming, articulate and calculating. He long ago recognized the power of personal narrative and stepping into the right moment. On immigration he has reinvented himself as a reformer, backing away from the hardliner he was two years ago as a candidate moving to the right to meet a rising tea party.
In his speech after the State of the Union, he spoke of his Cuban immigrant parents and said the words "middle class" 16 times, part of an effort to show himself as a regular guy, the anti-Mitt Romney, even though the underlying big-government-is-bad theme struck many as old school Republicanism.
The image-building has been so well executed that it made Rubio's awkward grab for water even more startling — an unscripted moment that showed him at once human and un-savior like.
Rubio deftly poked fun at himself, tweeting a picture of the Poland Spring bottle. But well before the gaffe, his press handlers ensured he would control the message the next morning, having booked a string of TV appearances, including Fox and Friends and Good Morning America. Rubio also went on CNN en Espanol, where, speaking fluent Spanish, he reached an audience mostly untapped by other politicians.
He finished the day on conservative radio. When host Mark Levin asked how Rubio could put up with "stupid interviewers" (meaning the mainstream media), Rubio made a sports analogy about a warm weather team having to play in cold areas and added:
"You've got to play the game."
• • •
The stated purpose of the Reclaim America PAC, which sustains much of Rubio's political team, is to help elect other conservatives.
But of the $1.7 million spent through Dec. 31, only about $110,000 went to candidates, among the least generous of all PACs, according to an analysis conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics. About $98,000 of that was earmarked by donors, meaning Rubio's PAC directed very little contributions itself.
Instead the PAC was used to pay Rubio's political consultants, generate fundraising lists and mailers, conduct polling and travel.
Neither Rubio nor any of his Senate or political staffers would comment for this article. Sullivan emailed a statement: "Using his PAC's resources and organization, Marco was able to attend over 100 political events for nearly two dozen Republican candidates last year. He headlined rallies and fundraisers in 21 states across the country raised several million dollars for Republicans. No other elected official not on the ballot did more to help elect Republicans in 2012."
Harris and Thompson are partners in Something Else Strategies, a firm that earned $157,000 through the end of the year from the PAC. Sullivan collected more than $140,000, while also working on Rubio's Senate staff. Martinez earned $75,000 from the PAC before recently replacing Sullivan as Rubio's deputy chief of staff.
Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics said Rubio's PAC spending reflects the "kittys" other top-name politicians set up to advance their careers. That would include then-Sen. Barack Obama, who gave more to candidates than Rubio but assembled a political team through his committee.
Rubio also spent hundreds of thousands on his fundraising effort, which includes direct mail nationwide. In one piece that landed last week, Rubio gives a strong clue of his next move, saying the 2012 election showed the GOP must not do a better job of explaining how its policies help Americans but "that it's time new messengers came forward to carry the torch."
"As the son of immigrants, I firmly believe that our time for reaching out is now," Rubio says. "We must act fast."
In a savvy move after the water bottle incident, the PAC on Wednesday began offering water bottles with Rubio's name on them to anyone who donated at least $25. "Send the liberal detractors a message that not only does Marco Rubio inspire you … he hydrates you too," the pitch read.
Rubio used his PAC to pay $20,000 to Mark Salter, a strategist who helped run John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, for help writing a memoir. An American Son came out last year, and Rubio parlayed it into a highly-publicized bus tour through key election states. Loads of gushing national TV exposure followed.
• • •
An early favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, his State of the Union response brought new recognition but also more scrutiny.
Rubio, who paid a company nearly $50,000 to do research into his background, has his team ready to push back. Nothing seems to small or far-flung.
A common example: A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter in 2011 posted a blog item about a news conference and mentioned how Rubio showed up late and "did his best to steal the show" with stirring talk about his elderly mother. The reporter was startled when an hour later Burgos reached out to complain. Still, Burgos managed to get the blog updated.
"It certainly is a long time to try to stay safe until 2016, if he's running," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "You have to have real substance to last that long. Image alone won't do it." He said Rubio's speech was a good first step, and the lawmaker followed the next day by introducing a bill that would give tax credits so poor kids can attend private school.
"Rubio may be fortunate that he got this early attention so that stories like inflating his resume about his Cuban roots and the credit card have been raised enough at the national level that they won't be treated as news," said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and a longtime watcher of Congress. "But if I were a political figure and had a cover on Time that said 'the savior,' I would have at best mixed emotions. The more you get built up, the more the temptation (of the media) to show the chinks in your armor and bring you down."
Rubio knows that. Shortly after the cover came out, he went to Twitter. "There is only one savior," he wrote, "and it's not me. #Jesus."