Sen. Marco Rubio sees opportunity for redemption on the right

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks with reporters in his office in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2015. Rubio is keeping quiet about his presidential plans, noting that his constituents are happy with him in the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks with reporters in his office in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2015. Rubio is keeping quiet about his presidential plans, noting that his constituents are happy with him in the Senate. McClatchy

They should love him.

He has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. He talks forcefully about fighting “the Washington establishment’s big-government vision for America,” Obamacare and excessive spending.

Yet Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has met with a yawn so far from conservatives, the people who may hold the key to his shot at the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Rubio will get a prime chance to do something about it Friday, when he addresses thousands of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a four-day gathering just outside Washington. In attendance will be the heavyweights of today’s GOP, as well as the thought leaders, pundits and conservatives Rubio needs to reach and persuade in order for him to be a viable contender in 2016.

So far, he’s polling low, and his numbers among conservatives have been lower than those among Republicans overall.

“His name, to grass-roots activists in Iowa, never comes up,” said Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated radio host based in Iowa, a pivotal early test for the presidential nomination.

Rubio’s actions over the past two years, Deace said, opened the door for others, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose voting record is one tick to the right of Rubio’s.

“Cruz wins the space now that Rubio had a year and a half ago,” Deace said.

The reason, of course, is Rubio’s celebrated role in a 2013 immigration debate. Rubio pushed a bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s immigration system that made it through the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives. Many conservatives lambasted him.

Brent Bozell, chairman of the national conservative advocacy group ForAmerica, said he was “shocked by how harsh the response was among the grass roots” toward Rubio’s immigration role.

“I asked if they could give him a mulligan because he was a brand-new face,” Bozell said. “Nobody was willing to do so. I think he hurt himself, and I think he knows it.”

Even so, Rubio’s actions on immigration are “certainly not a death sentence among conservatives,” said Richard S. Conley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.

“If Rubio is as astute as I think he is, I think he can turn this back around – and the memory of two years ago will be short-lived.”

Looking ahead to the high-profile appearance Friday, Rubio told McClatchy his “message isn’t going to change for the audience.”

That message, he said, is one of acknowledging the “difficult time for millions of Americans” and the rough transition from the old economy to the new. Globalization and automation have eliminated or replaced millions of jobs, he said, and those that remain don’t pay enough.

Rubio’s message should hit right at the heart of conservatives. But the potential GOP field is crowded with contenders who do the same. Some, such as Cruz, don’t need to spend time regaining the trust of conservatives – it never went away.

After bursting onto the political scene in 2010, Rubio did build a solidly conservative record in the Senate.

According to the American Conservative Union, which organized this week’s event, Rubio’s lifetime voting record rates 98.67; two senators are tied with him and two others have 100 ratings (the highest possible).

By another measure, Rubio was the 17th most-conservative senator in 2013, according to ratings by the National Journal. Among other potential presidential candidates, Cruz fell to Rubio’s right and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky just to his left.

Rubio has started to regain his footing publicly, receiving positive press and political buzz in recent weeks – in part because of his high-octane role battling the White House’s opening to Cuba. But that has yet to translate into significant support.

In recent national polls, his support has been in single digits among Republicans, ranking sixth or seventh. While a CNN poll showed his support among self-described conservatives to be in line with his support among all Republicans, other polls have found his support among conservatives to pale in comparison.

A December McClatchy-Marist poll showed Rubio at 5 percent among moderate Republicans and Republican-leaners and at 3 percent among conservative/very conservative ones. His standing among conservatives tied him for ninth. Rubio’s support among those who identified themselves as supporters of the tea party was 0 percent.

As for voters in Iowa, a Quinnipiac University poll of Republicans likely to attend the state’s caucus that was released this week showed Rubio at 4 percent; moderates gave him slightly more support than conservatives did.

“I don’t think he has a standing,” said Deace, the Iowa-based radio host, who has a strong following among conservatives. “I think he’s a nonentity, presidential-wise. . . . He doesn’t have a home-state constituency, and he doesn’t have an issue constituency.” And it all goes back to the immigration battle, he said.

Rubio has plenty of room to improve, however, and he has the kind of support among Washington pundits that could translate into a viable candidacy. A recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of definite or probable Iowa caucusgoers found Rubio with views that were “about right” – not too conservative or too moderate – and positive favorability ratings.

And as Rubio points out, he was once a long shot in Florida to win his Senate seat.

Added Bozell: “If you look at the short list of conservative candidates out there, he’s on it. If you look at the short list of moderate candidates, he’s on it. That makes him formidable.”

Related stories from McClatchy DC