If it was an audition, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., aced it.
Rubio, who’s on the short list of possible running mates to Mitt Romney, took to the campaign trail Monday on the eve of the primary elections in Pennsylvania and four other states that should lock in the GOP presidential nomination for the former Massachusetts governor.
Just last week, Rubio swore he’d turn down Romney if the senator were asked to be the candidate’s running mate. Monday, though, Rubio played a humble second fiddle to Romney, who ended the town hall meeting in a Philadelphia suburb with a hat tip to the 40-year-old’s tryout.
"Those guys in Florida are lucky to have him as senator, aren’t they?" Romney said.
Without overshadowing Romney, Rubio on Monday hammered home the former governor’s position on Iran and helped Romney attack President Barack Obama’s energy policy. In a brief question-and-answer session with reporters, Romney said he’d consider Rubio’s immigration proposal to find a way to allow young people who came to the country illegally as children to stay here if they’re in school or the military.
Rubio also found a way to appear self-deprecating in a way that often eludes Romney. While answering a voter’s question about voter fraud, Rubio turned it into a joke, noting that he had to show identification to make a major purchase recently.
"About a week ago I went and bought a new exercise bike because my wife said I was looking a little too senatorial, if you know what I mean," Rubio said to laughs.
Rubio’s campaign tropes may be well-worn in Florida, where voters in 2010 got to know the story of his Cuban immigrant parents and grandparents. They also heard him talk often about the United States as a place where anyone can start a business in his or her garage, even if it means flouting zoning laws.
But the anecdotes were fresh to Pennsylvania voters, including Stephanie "Sam" Fleetman, the business owner who hosted Romney’s visit Monday in her trucking company warehouse. She started her own trucking business with a phone line in her parents’ attic, then grew it over the past 30 years to 40 employees. The vision Rubio outlined matched Fleetman’s own outlook as a small business owner, she said.
"It should be like he was saying: a land of opportunities, not a land of handouts," she said.
Voter Patti Yates, 59, said Rubio first caught her eye three years ago when he was running for the U.S. Senate in Florida. She’s been saving video clips of his more memorable speeches, and she often emails them to friends who want to know more about him.
Yates and her friend Susan McCune, 56, supported Romney in 2008, and they said they thought he was a passionate candidate despite his square reputation. But Rubio, they said, brought something to the event that they described as "heartfelt." It might be how he draws on his parents’ immigrant background, they said, or his skill as a speaker. Both said they wanted to see him on the vice presidential ticket.
"I think he’s just phenomenal," Yates said.
Although it was Rubio’s first outing with Romney, he isn’t the first potential running mate to campaign with the former governor. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, stumped for Romney in Pennsylvania earlier this month; Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., campaigned for him in Colorado; and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., recently campaigned for Romney in Ohio.
Republican governors mentioned as possible running mates also have been especially helpful in the early stages of the primary season. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stumped for Romney in December before the Iowa caucuses, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did the same in her state before its January primary. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also have helped.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said the campaign took up Rubio on his offer to stump for the candidate. Last week, even as he downplayed the possibility of being Romney’s vice-presidential pick, Rubio said he’d jump at a chance to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal to Hispanic voters this election year.
Romney said he was just beginning to develop his list of running mates. One of his top aides is putting together a list and is hiring accounting staff to look at the tax returns of top contenders, for example. Romney declined to answer when he was asked whether Rubio had enough experience to be his No. 2.
Rubio, who’s enthusiastically and repeatedly said he’d say no to the job, took his cue from Romney. "I’m not talking about that process anymore."