The leading contender for the GOP's presidential nomination is polling at a measly 3 percent in two new national surveys testing Republican primary candidates. He wasn't even included in Bloomberg's November poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters. He's been overshadowed by the media's obsession with brand-name candidates, like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, even though his profile is more compelling than either.
But Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is as well-positioned as any Republican to emerge from the crowded scrum of potential candidates—and his strengths are significant enough that many are forgetting what made him a top Republican prospect in the first place:
1. He's one of the few candidates who can win support from both the establishment wing of the party and tea-party activists.
Since Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964, Republicans have followed the Buckley Rule in presidential nominating fights—backing the most-electable conservative candidate. Divisions between party leaders and grassroots conservatives have been a staple of Republican politics for generations, but for the last 50 years, the GOP has always nominated someone who is acceptable to both factions.
Despite the unusually large field, many of the contenders would have trouble bridging that divide. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's outspoken support for Common Core educational standards and immigration reform would put him at a disadvantage in a primary—one that he readily acknowledges. Ohio Gov. John Kasich's backing of Medicaid expansion has already alienated conservatives, and was exacerbated by an off-the-cuff comment—since walked back—that Obamacare wasn't going to be repealed. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's emphasis of electability over policy isn't likely to play well with the base, either.
On the right, there's a long list of candidates who would make the establishment squirm. Most Republican leaders view Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as unelectable, especially since his posturing led to last year's government shutdown. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee doesn't have many allies in Washington and is at odds with his party's fiscal conservatives. And while Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has worked assiduously to ingratiate himself with the establishment, his noninterventionist views on foreign policy would be problematic for the GOP hawks.
Rubio is one of the few candidates who would appeal to both sides. He's been diligent in voting the conservative line even as he's taken up establishment priorities like immigration reform. He's been cutting ads for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce while running lockstep with the more hard-line Club for Growth. At a time when the GOP's factions have been at war with each other, his ability to straddle both sides is an impressive political skill.
2. He's the most electable Republican, thanks to his compelling biography.
Rubio would be well-positioned to make gains with two constituencies that Romney struggled badly with in 2012: Hispanics and young voters.
If he's the nominee, running as the first Hispanic president should automatically improve the GOP's standing with Latinos from Romney's dismal 27-percent performance in 2012. (In his 2010 Senate campaign, Rubio won 55 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida.) His unsuccessful advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform may have hurt him in the short term with the GOP base, but could pay dividends down the road. Given the Democrats' worsening problems with working-class white voters, even making modest inroads with Latinos could play a decisive role in the general election.
And as a child of the 1970s, he's more culturally adept than most recent GOP presidential nominees, many of whom had trouble connecting with younger voters. Against a Hillary Clinton who will be 69 by Election Day 2016, Rubio wouldn't have to do much to draw sharp generational contrasts.
Most significantly, Rubio is one of the field's strongest retail politicians. He's youthful, charismatic, and can deliver an engaging speech. His personal biography as the son of immigrants would dovetail with a campaign message centering on restoring the country's economic opportunities.
3. He's the GOP's answer to Elizabeth Warren on economic mobility.
Politics is all about timing. And since suffering his setback on immigration reform, Rubio quietly spent the last year delivering a series of speeches focusing on issues affecting Americans' economic security. He talked about college affordability and educational opportunity, offered reforms to combat poverty, and cowrote an op-ed with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah touting a "pro-family, pro-growth tax reform." It's no coincidence that he's coming out with a book next month offering some of his economic prescriptions—a clear sign of his future intentions.
Rubio's decision to focus relentlessly on economic mobility stands out from his opposition. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's main claim to fame is his successful battles with labor in Wisconsin. Jeb Bush has continued to focus on immigration, even as the political winds have shifted. Rand Paul, in his bid to win over African-Americans and young voters, has championed drug-sentencing reform. All could be political winners in 2016, but they're secondary to most Americans' central concern—their own bottom line.
4. He's one of the few Republican contenders with a background in foreign policy.
Without the fanfare of a John McCain or Lindsey Graham, Rubio has quietly emerged as one of the most outspoken GOP hawks. In September, he delivered a foreign policy address at the John Hay Initiative calling for a more muscular foreign policy and advocating for increased defense spending. Over the past several months, he backed the administration's authorization to arm Syrian rebels, advocated reimplementing tougher sanctions against Iran, and outlined eight steps where the U.S. could take a tougher posture against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
His fluency speaking about international affairs stands out in a field that features many foreign policy neophytes. The recent Romney boomlet was partly in response to the lack of a senior statesman in the field capable of countering Clinton's experience. Rubio is less experienced, but one of the few candidates who can capably debate the former secretary of State on foreign affairs.
Rubio stands at the opposite end of the Republican Party's foreign policy spectrum from his leading rival, Rand Paul. Last year, Paul looked like he could take advantage of the country's war-weariness—even within GOP circles. But with American fears of terrorism growing (71 percent of Americans said they were worried about another terrorist attack, in the 2014 exit poll), Paul has been scrambling to sound tougher without abandoning his core principles.
5. He's already leading the invisible primary.
Far more important than the results of early primary polls are the behind-the-scenes maneuvering—racing to hire the top staffers, building a national donor base, and developing chits with prospective supporters—that constitute the so-called invisible primary. Rubio, through his Reclaim America PAC, has been one step ahead of many potential rivals on all these fronts.
At the political action committee, Rubio surrounded himself with a roster of experienced consultants advising him over the last several years. If Rubio runs, he already has the core of a presidential operation in place. They include communications advisers Todd Harris and Heath Thompson, who are partners at the media firm Something Else Strategies, and longtime South Carolina operative Terry Sullivan, who runs the PAC's day-to-day operations. Harris was the brains behind Iowa Sen.-elect Joni Ernst's "hog castration ad," one of the most effective Senate ads of the cycle. Ernst is now one of the leading gets in the run-up to Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Rubio was also an aggressive fundraiser and campaigner for GOP Senate candidates, most of whom emerged victorious. He cut a Spanish-language ad for Colorado Sen.-elect Cory Gardner, endorsed and fundraised for Ernst in the competitive primary, and campaigned for Rep. Bill Cassidy last month for this week's Louisiana runoff against Sen. Mary Landrieu.
If Rubio runs for president, one thing is guaranteed: He'll be prepared for the grueling race.