Although he could be an asset to Mitt Romney, irregularities in the Florida senator's record would make him a fat target for Democrats.
Despite repeatedly denying interest in the job, Marco Rubio remains at or near the top of nearly every speculative list of who Mitt Romney might choose as his running mate. Other candidates are seen as strong but flawed contenders -- Rob Portman is steady but dull; Paul Ryan a dynamic proponent of unpopular ideas -- but the first-term Florida senator is spoken of in rhapsodic terms. He'd provide the Romney ticket with youth and charisma, Tea Party credentials, and sway in the critical swing state of Florida -- not to mention being the first Hispanic to sit on a major party ticket.
Overlooked in this is Rubio's big Achilles' heel: his record. Not his legislative record -- though Democrats would surely take great pains to paint him as an extremist, he tends to be in the mainstream of the GOP -- but his political and lifestyle ones. Those areas will give opponents plenty to work with. There's no single smoking gun -- the lone revelation that would make him unviable. Instead, his record raises a series of smaller questions that would add up to many potential headaches for a campaign headed into a tough election against an incumbent president. The case for Rubio is well known, but here's a quick rundown on his potential vulnerabilities.
- He Improperly Used a Republican Party Credit Card. In 2010, the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) reported that Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, had used a Republican Party credit card for thousands of dollars worth of expenses -- including groceries, wine from a store near his house, and repairs to his family minivan. Rubio says he reimbursed the non-party bills out of pocket, although a party spokeswoman said the card should never have been used for personal expenses. He was grilled about the matter Sunday on Fox News. "Obviously, in hindsight, it looked bad, right? I mean, why are you using a party credit card at all?" he said. "Some of these expenses were because a travel agent had the number -- you know, the credit card number -- and they billed it to that card instead of the other card. Sometimes it was just a mistake ... just literally reached for the wrong card." He argues the matter is closed. But National Journal's Beth Reinhard -- who broke some of the original stories -- points out that he hasn't answered all the questions or revealed all of the relevant documents yet. The kicker? One of his expenses was for $134 at a barbershop. Cue up the parallels to another young, charismatic Southern senator who was once a running mate: John Edwards.
- He's Been Fined for Campaign-Finance Violations. In late April, the FEC fined Rubio $8,000 for accepting a little more than $210,000 in improper donations. He was also fined another $1,360 for failing to report contributions close to election day within 48 hours. But both those numbers need some context: Barack Obama was also fined for violating the 48-hour rule in 2004, and Rubio raised some $21 million during his Senate campaign -- meaning the donations the FEC sanctioned accounted for just 1 percent of his take.
- He Was Criticized for Living Profligately Off Campaign Contributions. While working his way up through Florida political ranks, Rubio was barely solvent, the Tampa Bay Times reported -- but he spent tens of thousands of dollars on meals, travel, and other expenses that were paid for by donations. In some cases, he failed to disclose some expenses as mandated by rules. Aides have insisted Rubio acted in accordance with state laws.
- He Double-Billed the State GOP and Taxpayers for Flights. After reporters raised questions in 2010, Rubio admitted he had billed $3,000 worth of air travel to both the Florida Republican Party and the state. He said the double-billing was a mistake and promised to reimburse the party (the trips were for Florida state business, not politics).
- He Has Several Real-Estate Irregularities. As speaker of the state House, Rubio initially failed to report a $135,000 home-equity loan from a bank controlled by political allies until it was pointed out by a reporter. "Real-estate experts said the deal -- on which Rubio gained $185,000 in equity in just 37 days -- was unusual," the Miami Herald wrote. "But the 36-year-old Republican said Friday that it was all above board, that he obtained no special favors and that the failure to disclose the loan was just 'an oversight.''' Two years later, in 2010, Rubio nearly faced foreclosure on a home he co-owned with David Rivera, now a congressman.
- His Friends Could Cause Him Grief. That's not the end of the potential problems David Rivera could cause for Rubio. The House freshman from Miami, one of Rubio's closest political friends, caught a lucky break in early April, when prosecutors announced they wouldn't charge Rivera after an 18-month probe. But in a scorching memo, they wrote, "An elected official over a period of many years may essentially live off of a combination of contributions made in support of public office candidacies, contributions made in support of internal political party position candidacies, and indirect payments made as a consideration for efforts as a political strategist while avoiding penal sanction." Rubio has remained close to Rivera and is hosting a fundraiser for him later this month.
- He Also Has Close Connections With Jim Greer. Greer is the embattled former chair of the Florida GOP, and as a prominent Florida Republican, Rubio naturally worked alongside him. The bad news: Greer has been charged with fraud and money-laundering. Worse: Greer is furious at party leaders and is thought to be sitting on damaging information about the party and its officials. Worst: He is set to go on trial in late July, on the eve of the Republican National Convention -- which is being held in Tampa.
- He Was a Registered Lobbyist -- While Also Serving as a Lawmaker. Through a fluke in Florida law, it's legal to be both a sitting member of the state legislature and a lobbyist. From 2000 to 2005, while in the state house, Rubio was also registered to lobby on behalf of several clients. When the issue came up during his 2010 Senate race, his campaign dismissed it, saying he wasn't really a lobbyist but was really just acting as a lawyer.
- His Record Has Several Other Irregularities. Rubio has already faced questions about his official biography. Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia revealed that contrary to prior claims, Rubio's parents came to the United States from Cuba before, rather than after, the Cuban Revolution. Roig-Franzia has a book on Rubio due out in June which could break more ground. Interestingly, Rubio was also a Mormon for a period during his youth before reconverting to Catholicism. The Romney campaign, which is often defensive about discussing religion, might be wary of putting a former Mormon on the ticket alongside Romney, a devout Latter-day Saint.
Again, the problem here isn't that any of these facts, individually, would rule Rubio out. Indeed, none of these publicly known scandals has stopped his impressive and fast rise. But collectively, they would pose a threat to Romney's core argument: that he would be a steady, competent, fiscally responsible hand on the tiller of the economy. Choosing a running mate with a history of sloppy disclosures and financial slip-ups would have much the same effect as when John McCain undercut his argument about Barack Obama's lack of experience on foreign policy by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. In fact, while Rubio's record is far better recorded and vetted than Palin's, the similarities don't stop there. Like her, he's a young, charismatic figure. His conflation of state business, party matters, and personal life echoes her own problems separating them. And some conservatives -- most notably Ann Coulter -- have warned against nominating him precisely because he's too fresh a face.
Interestingly, many of these questions came up during the bitter 2010 Senate race, in which Rubio defeated strong favorite Gov. Charlie Crist in the Republican primary, then handily beat both Crist (running as an independent) and Democrat Kendrick Meek in the general election. Crist's communications director at the time, who spearheaded many of the attacks, was one Andrea Saul (Jonathan Karl compiles her greatest hits on Rubio). Saul's job now? She's a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign. That means the presumptive Republican nominee is well-versed in his potential protege's weaknesses -- but also means his campaign might be better prepared to defend attacks on them. The question is, would a candidate whose operation prides itself on steadiness, deliberation, and meticulous preparation want to grapple with these questions?