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Adam C. Smith: 4 things Marco Rubio needs to become president in 2016

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination during an event at the Freedom Tower on April 13, 2015 in Miami. [Joe Raedle | Getty Images]
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination during an event at the Freedom Tower on April 13, 2015 in Miami. [Joe Raedle | Getty Images]
Published Dec. 15, 2015

What do you call a charismatic, young, first-term senator running for president?

No, not Barack Obama. Call him Marco Rubio. And don't call him a long shot, because he's not.

As Florida's junior senator made his candidacy official Monday, a lot of state Republican Party activists are convinced his campaign is less about winning the White House in 2016 than it is about building his stature and political network to land a lucrative Fox News gig and/or run for governor in 2018.

That sentiment misses a crucial point: Rubio can win. The 43-year-old Miami resident may be lagging behind the likes of Jeb Bush and Scott Walker in national and early state polls, but in an election cycle where voters are hungry for a new direction and foreign policy looms large, Rubio not only has a plausible path but arguably is the Republican best positioned to win the nomination and beat Hillary Clinton.

Here are four things Rubio needs to pull it off.

1. Perceptions of Jeb Bush must remain relatively consistent. If this were a conventional election cycle, the former Florida governor would be almost a sure thing to clinch the nomination as the candidate with the most money and support from his party's establishment. It's not.

Voters in both parties are eager for change, and few names evoke change less than Bush or Clinton. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last month found 59 percent of voters prefer a candidate who would bring change to current politics over an experienced and tested candidate. More than 60 percent of voters — and more than 4 in 10 Republicans — said Bush represents a return to the policies of the past.

In Miami's Freedom Tower on Monday, Rubio called the election "a generational choice" and said that in America the son of a bartender and maid like him can have "the same future as those who come from power and privilege" — clear references both to Clinton and his old mentor, Bush. After nominating Mitt Romney and John McCain and losing the past two elections, many Republicans agree it's time to pass the torch to a new generation.

"Rubio is the future," said John Stemberger, a leading conservative activist in Orlando, who is neutral. "He is the best communicator in modern American politics, his grasp of foreign politics is unparalleled and he has the ability to win both the primary with a coalition of evangelicals, Catholics and party regulars, and then in the general attract Latinos, young people and women. His family is picture perfect and he has the potential of being a Republican JFK."

2. Rubio needs to consolidate the anti-Bush vote. Bush is the nominal Republican frontrunner, winning about 17 percent support from Republican voters, according to the average of recent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com. That is a remarkably weak position.

The most important question in determining the nominee is whether the anti-Bush vote remains sufficiently splintered for him to thread his way to victory. Bush has more credible challengers than Romney did four years before: Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Walker, and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Here's where Rubio should have some advantages in staking out the position as the strongest transformational candidate. Those who know him best understand that he is too sharp and too polished to make the sort of crippling gaffe that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry did in 2012. The jury is still out on whether Walker can avoid that fate.

Rubio, a hawkish member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees, also has a potentially key advantage over Walker, who has no foreign policy experience, and Paul, who is often criticized as an isolationist. At a time of international instability, and with many Republicans worrying that America has antagonized allies and emboldened enemies under Obama, Rubio is counting on foreign policy to set him apart.

Cruz is a top choice for tea party conservatives, but doubts about Cruz's ability to win a general election and outright hostility from leaders in the Republican establishment give him much less room to grow than Rubio.

For decades, the GOP's three-legged-stool has been fiscal conservatism, social conservatism and strong defense. Among the alternatives to Jeb Bush, nobody sits on the stool more comfortably than Rubio.

"He's attractive across the full spectrum of the Republican Party — he has strong national security credentials, is a strong fiscal conservative and is also a Christian. And when he's speaking, it makes the hair stand up on your neck," said South Carolina Republican Party chairman Matt Moore, who is neutral. "He really connects with voters, and don't underestimate the power of that in the primary."

Winning begets winning, so Rubio ultimately has to win some debates and early caucuses or primaries. It's hard to see Bush winning conservative contests like Iowa and South Carolina, but not so with Rubio.

"One of the strengths of his candidacy is he could do well in Iowa, he could do well in New Hampshire, and he could do well in South Carolina," said Stuart Stevens, Romney's top adviser in 2012.

And just as Bush benefits from a crowded field of candidates vying for the conservative vote, Rubio initially could benefit from a crowded field that enables someone to win one of the early contests with just 25 percent of the vote.

3. Rubio must look presidential. This may be the biggest hurdle for Rubio, who faces a Republican electorate wary about electing another first-term senator without executive experience.

"Marco has the kind of performance charisma and generational appeal that will make him an immediate point of interest in the presidential race," said Adam Goodman, a Republican media consultant based in Tampa. "But it's a blessing and a curse. His youth and energy looks refreshing and new, which is what voters want. What Marco is going to have to prove is that underneath that youth and energy, there's the kind of gravitas and experience that can hit the ground running."

Rubio is unlikely to say something stupid in a debate or interview. But he is 43 and looks younger, and that could make passing the presidential threshold especially difficult.

"Can you imagine the dramatic contrast between Hillary and Marco on a debate stage? All she does is talk about being a grandmother. Marco is a bundle of youthful energy and looks younger every year. Hillary's going to look like his grandma waiting to sling him over her shoulder to burp him," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist in Miami who backs Bush but is longtime friends with Rubio.

4. He must have sufficient money to communicate. This may be the first election in which billionaires pick a presidential nominee and that's good news for Rubio. Bush is likely to raise far more money than any other Republican candidate, but he faces so much hostility and skepticism in the base due to his last name and his support for Common Core education standards that he may need all that money. Alternative candidates for the nomination should be able to overcome Bush's financial advantage if they are outspent 3-to-1, rather than, say, 5-to-1.

That's where the new, wide-open campaign financing system could come into play for Rubio or Cruz, who have billionaire supporters ready to pump vast sums into Super PAC committees that face few restrictions.

Norman Braman, a billionaire auto dealer in Miami supporting Rubio, could play a key role in leveling the financial playing field. Bush allies fear Braman could spend as much as $20 million promoting Rubio. If they watched Rubio's speech on TV, they also may have spotted the fellow on stage hugging Rubio right after the speech: billionaire sugar magnate Jose Fanjul.

Rubio also is courting billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who spent more than $100 million in the 2012 election cycle and is said to have been angered by recent criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Jeb Bush adviser and former Secretary of State James Baker. Adelson was so angry, the New York Times reported, that he phoned St. Petersburg developer and top Bush fundraiser Mel Sembler to complain.

Rubio faces huge hurdles to win the Republican nomination, but he also has built-in advantages and a lot of time before the voting starts. At this stage, being the second choice of countless primary voters can be preferable to being No. 1, because you don't have such a big a target painted on you.

Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.