Just days after Marco Rubio’s election as Florida’s newest Republican U.S. senator, former First Lady Nancy Reagan wrote to him, asking him to speak at her husband’s presidential library.
“You’ve been identified as someone to watch on the national political scene. I’m looking forward to watching you in your new role,” she said, in an invitation that no admirer of her late husband, former President Ronald Reagan, could decline. “Americans are curious to get to know you. I believe the Reagan Library would be a great venue for you to deliver an address.”
Rubio will officially be someone to watch on Tuesday, when he travels to California for his first major speech outside of Florida or the U.S. Senate — as well as some fundraising for his just-launched political action committee. He’s expected to expound on a familiar theme of his own and Reagan’s at the former president’s library: the role of government in America.
“Ronald Reagan was elected when I was in third grade and Ronald Reagan left office when I was in high school,” Rubio said last week. “So he basically defined the era in which I grew up in, in every way possible. And to this day, so much of what Reagan stood for is still what we’re still debating about.”
Although his national political notoriety has been on the rise since he took on the governor of his own party in a Senate primary, the sold-out speech at a Republican shrine makes it official.
It’s a big moment for Rubio, an eloquent speaker who often focuses in speeches on his Cuban exile parents and the opportunities immigrants have in this country. His speech at the Reagan library will be followed by a separate address in September, when he’ll talk about his growing interest in foreign policy at the Jesse Helms Center in North Carolina.
In that speech, he’s expected to focus on America’s role in the world — a speech expected to set him apart from some of his more isolationist colleagues who also came to the Senate with tea party backing.
It also gives him an opportunity to showcase what may be his greatest talent and the one thing that sets him apart from his less loquacious colleagues: his words.
Rubio often speaks from an outline but rarely writes formal remarks, although there have been several notable exceptions. They include the 2010 speech he gave in Washington, D.C., at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference, which launched his profile nationally and leant credibility to his Senate bid. He also wrote his first Senate floor speech, a task he admitted “took awhile.”
What Rubio has had to say, though, has been noticed. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, quoted the Florida senator to reporters in July, during the debate over raising the debt ceiling. “Senator Rubio said last week we don’t need more taxes,” Boehner said. “What we need are more taxpayers.”
"I think it was remarkable that the Speaker would be quoting him. Remarkable for a freshman senator," said former Republican Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, who now heads up JPMorgan Chase’s global foundation and its Florida, Central America, Caribbean and Mexico operations.
“I admire greatly how he’s handling himself,” Martinez said. “He went in there with so much notoriety and expectation and everything else. I really think he has handled all that very well. He has not nurtured it; he has not stood in front of the parade.”
But there’s also no question that Rubio has benefited from good timing and luck, as well as spot-on political instincts. He’s also benefited from a number of friends in high places, including Former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas, who first spotted his talent as a staffer on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. They also include Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who introduced Rubio before his victory speech last November by calling the newly elected senator the “right man at the right time.” Bush, saying it was difficult not to be emotional about Rubio’s win, also noted Rubio’s skills as an orator.
“I’m so proud of his high-voltage energy, I’m so proud of his enthusiasm, I’m so proud of his eloquence," Bush said.
Until now, Rubio has taken a page from another senator who arrived in Washington with a national profile: Hillary Clinton, elected to the Senate in 2000. The high-profile former First Lady and current secretary of state drew praise from colleagues for focusing first on her job as a senator from New York before leaping into the national spotlight again with a 2008 presidential bid. Another rising star, then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, took a similar low-key approach in the clubby chamber.
Just two weeks after Rubio speaks at the Reagan library, it will play host to a Republican presidential debate. It begs the question of whether Rubio’s speech there — and his overall strategy — is calculated bait for an eventual vice presidential nod.
Close friends and advisors brush off such talk. Rubio isn’t the kind of politician with a five-year plan, said Alberto Martinez, Rubio’s former spokesman and a Republican consultant who’s advising Adam Hasner’s U.S. Senate campaign in Florida.
But Rubio is particularly good at seizing the moment, Martinez said.
“For him it’s all about advancing the things he believes in,” Martinez said. “It’s really a lot simpler than people think. He believes very deeply in a certain set of issues, and when he has an opportunity to speak about them and advance them on the policy battlefield, he takes that opportunity.”
The launch of the political action committee, the Sunday show appearances, and the more frequent Senate floor speeches all signal that he’s eager to take to that battlefield. Others may see it as calculating, Rubio said, but he sees it as his first opportunity with a platform to share ideas with people in a way that can invite thought and debate at a national level.
“I’m a United States senator and have opinions on some of these issues that are going on,” Rubio said. “I haven’t spoken about them before because I haven’t been in this position before.”