Of the Big Four (Bush, Romney, Christie and Rubio) Rubio is the youngest, newest face on the national stage; the only minority; the only senator; and the one with the most to lose. He has made clear he will not see reelection to the Senate if he runs for president; if he runs and doesn’t win the presidency, he would then be out of office. Some speculate that in that event he would be just as content to go into the private sector and make money. What are his biggest challenges?
First, his youth is attractive, but he will also have to project maturity and toughness. The knock on Rubio is that he got snookered on immigration by championing a bill destined to fail, next got scared off the issue by an irate base, and then jumped into the foolish shutdown gambit to make amends with the far right. He will have to change the perception that he can be buffeted by strong political forces swirling around him. His critics will question whether he is a conservative version of President Obama — a freshman senator with eloquence but no executive experience.
Second, his role in immigration reform make him an anathema to some in the base. By pushing for a path to citizenship, he makes Bush look like an immigration hawk (Bush favors only legalization, although at times he was open to Rubio’s Senate bill) and sets himself up as a target of the far right. That will make for tough sledding in Iowa and in South Carolina.
This in turn leads to another question: What state can he win early in the race if Iowa and South Carolina are uphill fights? Accurately or not, Rubio will appear less conservative than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and newcomer Ben Carson. Meanwhile, New Hampshire is Romney’s back yard and has often favored mavericks who eschew social issues, not exactly Rubio’s profile. Bush would be favored in Florida, and if Rubio loses there, donors and supporters will begin to wonder where he can win if he doesn’t win his home state.
And yet despite those factors, Rubio has clear advantages aside from his youth, charisma and Hispanic ethnicity. He is the only one of the Big Four who comes from humble origins and has a compelling immigrant story to tell. He would be a vivid contrast to Hillary Clinton — youth vs. age, average American vs. super rich pol, son of immigrant vs. political dynasty, critic of Obama foreign policy vs. architect of Obama foreign policy, sincerity vs. cynicism. Moreover, Rubio for a couple of years has been talking about the issues many conservatives are just recently discovering — upward mobility, the middle-class squeeze, economic insecurity, higher education costs, etc. He has a full-blown agenda that can appeal beyond the party’s traditional base. And of the three freshman senators he is the most credible, least extreme and most acceptable to all wings of the party.
In sum, the race may become a multi-car pileup in which candidates pilfer each other’s donors and bases of support. In any event, the race will be engrossing and unpredictable. Execution — the candidates’ ability to raise money, avoid errors, project gravitas and stand out in a cluttered field — is likely to decide the race. Wow, what a battle we are about to witness.