MIAMI, Florida — When Hillary Clinton became First Lady of Arkansas in 1979, Marco Rubio was 8 years old and likely still hanging on to some of his baby teeth.
Fourteen years later, Clinton ascended to the White House with her husband while Rubio was racking up student debt as a political science undergrad at the University of Florida.
And in early 2000, as Clinton made plans to parlay her high-profile East Wing perch into a U.S. Senate candidacy — thus formalizing the arrival of America’s newest political dynasty — 28-year-old Rubio was a small-town city commissioner running for state legislature in Florida, where he earnestly touted his role in establishing West Miami’s first bike cop as the “cornerstone” of his campaign.
The generational contrast between Rubio, 43, and Clinton, 67, will be front and center in the media this week as TV newscasts fill with split-screen images of the two candidates launching their presidential bids within 24 hours of each other. Democrats widely view their presumptive nominee’s long record of government service and accompanying gravitas as a distinct advantage, enabling her to overshadow the GOP’s field of fresh faces and first-termers. But inside the tight circle of advisers and confidantes plotting Rubio’s 2016 campaign, the senator’s age is being treated as one of his deadliest electoral weapons — and one they won’t wield against Clinton alone.
In interviews with multiple Republicans familiar with Rubio’s strategy — including senior advisers, as well as donors and consultants who have been courted by his team — the candidate’s youth was repeatedly identified as a key 2016 selling point, and one that could help distinguish him from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the early favorite among GOP elites.
Rubio, said one adviser, will not be “competing for who can be the whitest, oldest rich guy” in the Republican field. Instead, they will cast him as a symbol of America’s future — a son of working-class immigrants, whose fluency in both Spanish and contemporary pop culture sets him apart from the flabby, boomer-built political establishment.
Eager to maintain the optimism that has long permeated Rubio’s political identity, his team will work to keep direct attacks on fellow Republicans to a minimum for as long as possible. They are particularly wary of blasting away at Bush, since the former governor has been widely portrayed in the media as Rubio’s “mentor” — a characterization they contest — and they worry that any explicit attacks from their campaign would play in the press as a personal betrayal by an overly ambitious protege. Instead, Rubio’s team will seek to draw generational contrasts with Bush in the primaries by using Clinton as a proxy target.
Rubio’s personal identity and future-tense campaign message are built into the backdrop he selected for his announcement here Monday evening. He plans to speak in front of the Miami Freedom Tower, the site where Cuban refugees first arrived in the 1960s when they were coming to the United States. “To me, it’s a place that’s symbolic of the promise of America,” Rubio told the Miami Herald.
The contours of his pitch were clear in a video released last week by his campaign, which featured a five-minute montage of the candidate’s sunny, soaring rhetoric condemning the politics of the past — the “Obama-Clinton foreign policy” in particular — and then promising “a new American century.” In a country where 60% of the electorate says the U.S. is on the “wrong track,” Rubio’s team is betting that a dynamic, young, Latino candidate will hold more appeal than a dynastic heiress or heir.
How to make that case beyond the visual contrasts? At least one adviser believes Rubio’s unique affection for pop culture will be an asset. The adviser recalled a TMZ stakeout during which the camera-wielding gossip reporter asked Rubio to weigh in on Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade’s buzzed-about penchant for capri pants: Rubio “blew them away” when he revealed he was not just aware of the reference, but had a fully formed opinion. In the same vein, Rubio’s advisers have talked up his fluency in discussing hip-hop — he famously prefers Tupac over Biggie, and is on a first-name basis with Pitbull — as a key signifier of his generational appeal. (Conservatives on Twitter, meanwhile, are currently mocking newly unearthed evidence of Clinton’s Hootie and the Blowfish fandom.)
Rubio, of course, is not the only relatively young prospect in the Republican field — Sen. Ted Cruz is 44, Gov. Scott Walker is 47, and and Sen. Rand Paul is 52. But Rubio’s team believes that none of the other newcomers project the sort of optimism, vitality, and buoyancy that their candidate possesses. Cruz and Paul, in particular, have so far veered toward tones of defiance and apocalyptic warnings as they appeal to Tea Partiers and libertarians.
Rubio’s message is meant to be more broad-based and mainstream — meaning that his path to the nomination will necessarily include hurdling Bush. There may come a time, Rubio’s advisers say, when he will have to start aggressively “drawing a contrast” with his fellow Floridian. But for now, he will make his case as the happy partisan warrior taking the fight to Clinton.
“Marco’s pitch in one word is ‘transformative,’” said one GOP consultant who was recently approached about joining Rubio’s team. “He is the candidate who can be most Reagan-esque in this race.”
But Rubio’s team is sensitive to the risks inherent in such a pitch: Namely, it calls to mind Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Indeed, one Rubio adviser argued that he is uniquely positioned among Republicans to make gains with the so-called “coalition of the ascendant” that carried Obama into office — a group made up primarily of minorities and younger voters.
Yet, Republicans have long argued that Obama was an inexperienced lightweight in 2008 who conned Americans into electing him with a winning personality and a shallow mastery of cultural ephemera. Rubio ha already tried to preempt contentions that he is simply a right-leaning Obama.
In a recent Fox News interview, the senator argued intently that Obama “was a back bencher in the state legislature in Illinois and I was in leadership all nine years that I served there, including two as Speaker of the House.”
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