Political audiences always like patriotic rhetoric, but as several reporters have noticed, this year’s Republican audiences have a special hunger for it. The phrase “American exceptionalism” has become a rallying cry. There is a common feeling on the right that the American idea is losing force and focus, that the American dream is slipping out of reach, that America is stepping back from its traditional role in the world and that President Barack Obama doesn’t forthrightly champion the American gospel.
Even more than normal, Republicans seem to want their candidate for president to be drenched in the red, white and blue.
Along comes Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio, 43, doesn’t just speak in the ardent patriotic tones common to the children of immigrants like himself. His very life is the embodiment of the American dream: parents who tended bar and worked at Kmart with a son who rose to become a U.S. senator. His heritage demonstrates that the American dream is open to all who come here legally and work hard. He is what many Republicans want their country to be.
So there is beginning to be a certain charisma to his presidential campaign. It is not necessarily showing up in outright support. The first-term senator still shows up only with 8.3 percent support on the Real Clear Politics average of 2016 Republican presidential nomination polls, leaving him tied for fifth in the field. But primary voters are open to him; the upside is large.
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As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight pointed out, Rubio’s net favorable/unfavorable rating is higher than every other candidate except Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Philosophically, he is at the center of the party. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent of Republican primary voters said they could see themselves supporting him even if he wasn’t their first choice at the time, which put him above every other candidate.
So it’s probably right to see Rubio as the second most likely nominee, slightly behind Jeb Bush and slightly ahead of Walker.
He is, for starters, the most talented politician in the race. Set aside who has the most money and who has the best infrastructure. (Overrated assets at this stage in the race.) Set aside the ideological buckets we pundits like to divide the candidates into. (Voters are not that attuned to factional distinctions.) In most primary battles, the crown goes to the most talented plausible candidate.
Rubio gives a very good speech. He has an upbeat and pleasant demeanor. He has a great personal story. His policy agenda is more detailed and creative than any of his rivals. He has an overarching argument - that it is time for a new generation to reform and replace archaic structures.
The circumstances of the race might benefit him. With such a big field, nobody is going to lock up the race early. Republicans will likely be beating each other up for months while looking across the aisle and seeing Hillary Clinton coasting along. At some point, they are going to want to settle on a consensus choice.
That point may come around March 15, when Florida holds its winner-take-all primary. Rubio was virtually tied with Bush among Florida Republicans, 31 percent to 30 percent, according to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted last week. If Bush is bloodied in the earlier primaries, Rubio could win Florida and loom as a giant.
His weaknesses are not killers. Rubio’s past support for comprehensive immigration reform irks activists. But it’s not clear if it will hurt him with the voters who are more divided on reform. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, 66 percent of Republicans believed that unauthorized immigrants should be eligible for citizenship if they meet certain criteria. Immigration reform didn’t kill John McCain’s candidacy seven years ago.
Rubio’s inexperience concerns everybody. But at least he was speaker of the Florida House. As Jim Geraghty of National Review has detailed, his record running that body was pretty good. He was a tough but reasonably successful negotiator. On his first day in office, he handed each legislator a book with the cover “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future.” The pages were blank. He was inviting his members to fill them in - a nice collaborative touch.
Can Rubio win a general election? Well, he believes more in expanding the party than in just mobilizing the base. In his past races, he’s done better than generic Republican candidates because of his success with Hispanics. Youth is America’s oldest tradition. Who’s to say that voters won’t side for the relative outsider over the know-what-you’re-getting Hillary Clinton?
One big test for Rubio is this: Are Americans disillusioned with government or just disgusted? If they are disillusioned, they would likely want to play it safe and go with the experienced, low-risk candidates, Bush and Clinton. If they are disgusted, then they would be more likely to take a flier on change. The New American could be the guy.