As Marco Rubio rehabs his career, a vocal, visible senator emerges

Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio
Published May 28, 2016

WASHINGTON — Two months after a brutal home-state loss that ended his presidential campaign, Sen. Marco Rubio is in a one-man race against time and perception.

He rails on the Senate floor against Zika, visits a Jacksonville slum, discusses Orlando's heroin scourge and pops up on local TV and radio shows across Florida — all of it to prove the job isn't as awful as he may have made it seem.

The once overly scripted presidential candidate has relaxed, flashing humor on Twitter, but also frustration about speculation over what he'll do after leaving the Senate in January, or if he'll run for another term, gossip fueled by his renewed focus on Florida and media outreach.

Rubio's rehab project has layers but one measure stands out: Since leaving the presidential trail, he has not missed a single vote.

The beating Rubio took in Florida at the hands of Donald Trump was in part due to his notable absenteeism in Washington, and a view that he treated the job as a stepping stone.

"If I were advising him I would say, 'One of the knocks on you is that you didn't work very hard when you were in the Senate. You've got a couple months to change that perception,' " said Alex Patton, a Republican strategist in Florida.

"He could have crawled into a bottle of Scotch and onto his couch. It was a first-class whuppin'," Patton added. "You can judge a man or woman in how they deal with adversity, and so far, the senator seems to be handling it fairly well."

Rubio says he trying to go out on a strong note.

"This is what I'm supposed to be doing," he said in an interview Thursday from his Washington office. "If I wasn't doing this people would say, 'Well, what are you doing the last six months?' "

There's a clear attempt, however, to improve his standing with voters who put him on the national stage. A Quinnipiac poll this month showed 42 percent of Florida voters approve of his performance versus 49 percent who disapprove, the first time he has been underwater since joining the Senate in 2011.

He may not recover among some grass roots activists.

"It's too late. We sent him to Washington to represent the people of Florida and he did nothing," said Lucille J. Justin, 77, of Plantation, who still has a Rubio for Senate T-shirt in her dresser. "He listened to the wrong people. They saw this young man go to Washington, the fair-haired boy of the Republican Party. His head got full."

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Rubio outlasted all but three of the 17 Republican presidential contenders and attracted millions of fans nationally. People like a winner but hard feelings toward the losers tend to fade.

He turned 45 on Saturday and has signaled he will make another run for president, as early as 2020 should Trump lose to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

For now, he is preparing to leave elective politics and is firm about doing so even as Republicans in Washington, worried about losing the majority, want him to run for re-election. The father of four rules out becoming a lobbyist or taking a Wall Street job, lucrative crash pads for retired politicians but problematic for those seeking a return.

Rubio says he is unsure what he will do other than expressing interest in starting some sort of business and continuing a relationship with Florida International University, where he has taught political science. He wants to retain a role in foreign policy, as evident by his trip to the Middle East earlier this month.

He could join the paid speaking circuit and start a foundation like Jeb Bush did after two terms as Florida governor, allowing him to remain visible and maintain a donor base.

"He seems very happy," said Dario Moreno, a Rubio friend and FIU professor. "There's a certain amount of apprehension about what (the future) will bring but also a high degree of excitement. He reminds me of some of my students who got accepted to four or five law schools and are enjoying being wooed."

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Carried into office on the 2010 tea party wave, Rubio quickly began to prepare for a presidential campaign, focusing on national affairs and building foreign policy credentials, not Florida. "Indian River Lagoon advocates ask: Where is Rubio?" read a summer 2014 newspaper headline. During the flood insurance crisis, he was a back-bencher and did not tend to relationships that mattered.

"Marco should have been more in touch with the people that got him there," said Bill Bunting, a GOP official in Pasco County and one of the earliest Rubio supporters. "When he was in office the first two years, he would call every time. Then I guess he got busy in Washington."

Rubio's ambition became a liability on the campaign trail, with Bush and other rivals knocking his lack of legislative accomplishment and comparing his rhetorical gifts to President Barack Obama. Like Obama, he missed a ton of votes.

And Rubio's major accomplishment was the Gang of Eight immigration bill, but he retreated from it amid backlash from conservatives.

Back in the Senate after the crushing Florida primary, Rubio has led the fight for Zika virus funding, bucking his own party to support $1.9 billion sought by Obama. He's trying to gain momentum for legislation that would strip automatic federal benefits from Cuban refugees and make them apply. He has worked on Everglades funding. And he secured amendments to address substandard federally funded housing in Jacksonville.

"You guys are disgusting," he told the housing complex administrator during a visit this month. The official implied to a TV reporter that Rubio only now paid attention when it was good for his political standing, something he denies.

Calculated or not, Rubio has given a glimpse of the senator he could have been.

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While Rubio's supporters hoped he would be the face of the #NeverTrump movement once he dropped out, he held back and now is trying to cut a fine line between showing party loyalty and backing the nominee while maintaining a distance from Trump, issuing the occasional criticism.

"I don't dislike him. I don't have any negative feelings towards him personally," he said in the interview. "I disagree with a lot of his policies. That was well-established during the campaign. . . . I also think he happens to be substantially better than Hillary Clinton."

Rubio said he is willing to speak at the Republican National Convention in July, another sign of his desire to remain relevant with a national audience.

"There's no upside for Marco Rubio to become a distraction in this campaign where down-ballot races are already going to have enough trouble," said Rick Wilson, a GOP operative in Florida who has tried to build momentum for a third-party presidential candidate.

For now, Rubio is unlikely to campaign with Trump and says his focus will be on helping other Republican candidates, including vulnerable Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. He is poised to endorse his friend Carlos Lopez-Cantera in the race to succeed him in the Senate, an early test of Rubio's standing among the base in Florida. National travel for other candidates will help him reconnect with supporters.

• • •

On a recent Monday night, Rubio fired off a series of Twitter missives, part sarcastic, part frustrated in response to news media speculation about his future.

"Funny to read about unnamed 'people close' to me who claim to know my thinking on future plans. They just make it up," read one. "I have only said like 10000 times I will be a private citizen in January." . . . "As for future in politics, well it's nearly impossible for someone not in office to ever become a successful candidate for President. Right?"

He also blasted a quote in a Washington Post story that said he "hated" the Senate. "Words I have NEVER said to anyone." Rubio did justify his presidential campaign partly on the idea that the Senate moves too slowly and that the White House moves foreign policy.

Social media and other forums could provide a way for him to remain in the spotlight and history suggests Rubio will yearn for a return, just as he did the last time he was out of office, in late 2008 when his tenure as Florida House speaker ended.

Time away, for now, could prove lucrative in different ways.

"Since the Republican Party has sold its soul to Donald Trump, right now may be a good time to be somebody who's applied real world private-sector experience to talking about a campaign in the future," said Wilson. "Doing something that is relevant and visible that isn't necessarily saying I passed the toilet seat standards bill of 2017."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.