After posing for photographs with top supporters for more than an hour, Marco Rubio strolled quietly into a ballroom at the Miami Airport Hilton Saturday night, found his place at the honored guests’ table at the front of the room and prepared to address the home crowd that so enthusiastically got him elected to the U.S. Senate.
It was a subdued entrance for a man heralded as a rock star last year when he swept into office as the fresh face of the Republican wave that overtook Washington in November — a status that made pop culture Friday night when Rubio was mentioned on the game show Jeopardy!
“Elected senator from Florida,” host Alex Trebek intoned, “this son of Cuban exiles has been called a rising conservative political star.”
“Who is Rubio?” the contestant quickly replied to the answer in the midterms category, which carried a $2,000 payoff. “Mar-co Ruuubio, right you are,” Trebek said, attempting a Spanish accent.
But in Washington, the rising star has shunned the national spotlight and Sunday talk shows in an orchestrated effort to show he’s focused on Florida. He maintained that approach Saturday at the Miami-Dade Republican Party’s Lincoln Day dinner, a fundraiser expected to net the GOP some $80,000 that featured Rubio as its keynote speaker.
Observers say Rubio is playing smart politics and have suggested he’s taking a page from other senators who arrived with national profiles, including Hillary Clinton — now secretary of state — who was the first First Lady to be elected a senator. Clinton, who arrived in 2001, impressed fellow senators in the clubby, tradition-bound chamber by focusing on her work as a New York senator, rather than as a superstar.
Rubio, likewise, has turned down national press invites and shrugs off as media noise speculation that he’d be on a vice presidential shortlist. “This job is the one job that I wanted,” he told a Fort Myers radio show.
To that end, he’s made a practice of holding roundtable interviews with Florida reporters in the decidedly unglamorous basement office he temporarily occupies in the Senate. A favorite topic: the federal deficit.
His goal, said spokesman Alex Burgos, “is for his constituents to hold him accountable, even at this early going, that he is serving them well, that he is focused on their issues.”
Rubio has not yet delivered his first speech on the Senate floor, but has worked to develop ties with Senate leadership. “He’s using policy lunches, committee meetings, every opportunity he gets to get know his colleagues,” Burgos said.
He’s had dinner with Vice President Joe Biden at the vice president’s residence and discussed war efforts at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Though Rubio became a darling of the tea party and attended rallies during the 2010 campaign, his early decisions have illustrated he’s more the former Florida House Speaker he once was than a tea party convert.
He hired a D.C. insider — Cesar Conda, an advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney — as his chief of staff and he traveled in January to Afghanistan and Pakistan with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
And he elected not to attend the first meeting of the Senate Tea Party caucus convened by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a decision that rankled some activists.
But Miami-Dade Republicans applauded Rubio’s measured approach and continued to treat him with superstar devotion.
“Instead of going after quotes and attention and interviews, he’s focusing on learning policy,” said state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the Republican majority leader in Tallahassee.
Rubio was later introduced by state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez as “the reason we’re all here — I don’t think anyone’s fooling themselves — Marco Rubio!”
The senator called Washington “crazy” and the political process “at best tone deafand at worst just lazy.” He stuck to his speech about the dangers of the massive federal debt but also took time to acknowledge the grassroots he came from, pointing to a table in the back of the room full of young GOP volunteers.
“I remember that table — I used to have to sit there,” Rubio said. “It wasn’t that long ago. In about 15 or 16 years you’re going to be sitting in one of these tables and probably standing behind this podium.”
In Washington, Rubio keeps his profile considerably lower than many of his fellow freshman, including Paul and Broward Republican Allen West, a frequent guest on Fox News and keynote speaker at one of the biggest conservative gatherings in Washington.
Paul, meanwhile, has already delivered his first floor speech — warning that the U.S. faces a “fiscal nightmare, potentially a debt crisis.” And while Paul pressed fellow senators to reject a 90-day extension of the Patriot Act, arguing that it represents the “permanent expansion of a police state,” Rubio voted for the extension.
Former Florida Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami, who served with Rubio in the state House and was chief counsel to former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, suggested Rubio is “taking the longer view.”
“It is traditional and wise for freshmen senators to keep a lower profile and study up before speaking out and I think that’s what Marco is doing,” Gelber said. “You have to earn the adjective senatorial and you do that by comporting yourself as a deliberative person, and some do that better than others.”
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Questions about Rubio’s GOP-party credit card spending that dogged him during the election have died down, but Rubio has close ties to his friend and ally, Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, who is under criminal investigation for his financial dealings.
Back home, Rubio has made the rounds across the state: He elected to skip the annual Conservative Political Action Committee conference — which West keynoted — to attend a small business seminar in Orlando and to tour the Jacksonville Naval Station. But he did deliver a video address to the conservative gathering, crediting his invite to CPAC in 2010 as a major factor in his come-from-behind U.S. Senate win.
“It instantly gave me credibility and was one of the real launching points for my campaign,” he said. Next year, he added, “I’ll see you in person.”