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Marco Rubio might be the odd man out in 2016

Decision day is near for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Weeks, not months. That's the time frame Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has set for deciding whether he will run for president in 2016. Rubio is scheduled to huddle with supporters in Miami Beach on Jan. 23 and 24, days that should be circled in red ink on everyone's political calendar. (Surely, the big bosses will want me to stake out that meeting in sunny Florida?)

Rubio has been insisting that former Florida governor Jeb Bush's plans to enter the race have no bearing on what he will do. Maybe not. But it probably should.

A couple of data points to consider from a few polls:

  • From a recent Tampa Bay Times article: A Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll of more than 150 of the state's most plugged-in political players conducted after Bush's big step toward running found that eight in 10 said Bush would be stronger than Rubio in the Republican primary, and nine in 10 said the former governor would be stronger in the general election.
  • A recent CNN poll shows 23 percent of Republicans favoring Bush, with 5 percent for Rubio. Rubio polls below former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, tying with Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) for fifth place. We know, it's way early to be looking at polls -- especially because Rubio isn't all that well known nationally -- but still.
  • Another poll of Florida Republicans, finds him in third place behind Bush (34 percent) and Mitt Romney (15 percent). Rubio draws 10 percent of Republican voters in his own state, a stat that backs up the more unscientific findings of the conversations among Republican power players.

This isn't where Rubio thought he would be two years ago when he was being cast by, well, everyone as the future of the GOP.

So what must he and his donors consider as they look at his 2016 prospects?  First, what's his path in this crowded field? Republican strategists look at the very full roster of possible candidates and see three camps, some slightly overlapping: the establishment camp, the tea party/libertarian camp and the evangelical camp. Although Rubio has some tea party support, his approach to foreign policy and immigration reform make him a not-perfect fit there. And he is hardly the best fit for the evangelical camp either, despite his efforts at appealing to that group.

Which leaves the establishment camp, and the fundraising juggernauts named Bush and Romney.

Imagine Rubio in conversations with possible donors. What's his best case for why he is a better investment than Bush or Romney to beat the field and eventually stand onstage with Hillary Clinton? Appeal to Hispanics? Bush has the same argument.

Fresh face? Sure. But maybe a little too fresh. He has the Obama problem on that score. And his youth means he has plenty of time. This isn't his last, best chance, like a few others.

The best argument to stay on the sidelines is that Rubio's best shot at becoming president, something he clearly wants to become, is his Senate seat.  If he runs for president in 2016, that means giving up his launching pad. (He has said he wouldn't run for president and reelection.) It's a risky move. Why make it now?

Rubio still has a long runway ahead of him. At 43, he is two decades younger than Bush. He could stay in the Senate for another term, or run for governor in 2018. In 2020 or 2024, he will still be a young man. But one with a longer resume and probably a less chock-full field to deal with. And if Rubio doesn't run for the big office in 2016, he'll be on every potential nominee's VP shortlist.

Of course, all of this is subject to change, because politics.