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Eye On Candidates
October 19, 2015

Is Rubio Faltering?

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has from the start of the campaign been considered one of the more serious contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination, and there is little doubt he remains in the top tier. But according to a pair of recent articles, Rubio perhaps isn’t in as strong a position as he needs to be. From Politico:

Marco Rubio's wake-up call

The hype surrounding Marco Rubio's presidential campaign just smashed into the wall of reality.

First, the Florida senator's team insisted it had stashed more campaign cash in the bank than fellow Floridian Jeb Bush -- only it hadn't. The campaign also told reporters it had raised $6 million in the last fundraising quarter -- also not true. That turned out to be an overly generous rounding of the underwhelming real figure: $5.7 million.

Yet those aren't even the most troublesome parts of the Florida senator's most recent campaign finance report. Rubio may be slowly rising in the polls, but his third quarter filing revealed a campaign that's also out-manned by many of its rivals in the early-voting states. His staff is largely concentrated in Washington, with just a small umbrella of on-the-ground, early-state operatives -- and he's already at a disadvantage because he hasn't invested the time in early-state visits that some of his opponents have.

That lack of staffing and visits to the early states comes up a couple of times in the article, including this observation:

A longtime New Hampshire operative who believes Rubio could do well there added that the senator has "missed a lot of opportunities over the year where he could've been here more regularly."

"Early on and over the summer, when he came here, he’d have like one public event," the operative said. "Rubio people might feel pretty good because he got that good debate performance. That was a good moment. You’re going to have bad moments in the campaign. If you haven’t put together the organization, if you haven’t spent time laying the foundation for undecided voters to make decisions, when you have challenging moments or bad moments, you can’t sustain any of the ground you made up."

The Rubio campaign touts a “lean” organization (the story says there are 54 people on the payroll), and also points to what they call an “ardent” volunteer supporter base. And there are still more than three months to go until Iowa voters head to the caucuses in early February. But some portion of that time will be limited by the holidays, when those voters will be difficult to reach.

Over in The Washington Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin voices concerns in an article titled “Rubio: the promise and peril” and details an embarrassing moment for Rubio concerning his campaign’s fundraising:

[H]is actual third-quarter fundraising was only $5.7 million, not $6 million, as his campaign initially put out. Moreover, he has $9.7 million cash on hand, not $10.9 as his team first indicated. His campaign continued to insist Rubio had more cash than Bush, falsely asserting Bush’s loans should be deducted from cash on hand. Over a trivial issue the campaign lost credibility.

Rubin points to the Politico article on Rubio’s lack of infrastructure in the early states, and then also brings in a recent Weekly Standard piece suggesting some of his policy positions may be problematic in a general election:

On the other hand, one of the primary features of the Rubio plan designed to promote growth—zeroing out taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest in order to spur investment—has been criticized as politically toxic in a general election. The proposal would bring federal tax bills of people like Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney close to zero. The Democratic attack ad writes itself. So how would Rubio respond? 

“It’s not about Warren Buffett or Mitt Romney. It’s about people like my father. My father was a bartender. He worked in a hotel. And that hotel existed because someone invested money to build it, operate it, and maintain it,” Rubio said. “We need more investment. The more you tax investment, the less investment you’re going to get. I want to make America the most attractive place in the world to invest, so millions of people like my father have jobs.” 

This argument, made at a time when the stock market is up more than 150 percent since its 2009 low, does not strike Henry Olsen, a political analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, as persuasive. “Particularly it’s damaging for Rubio because his essential campaign appeal is that he’s everything that Mitt Romney is not,” Olsen says. “I think elections are fought at a personal and a moral level, and what you have here is a very easily understandable moral message.”

Rubin’s conclusion is that this and other positions could make it easy for him to be characterized as “extreme” by Democrats, although in her view he is still a viable candidate:

Rubio is naive in thinking this won’t be a problem in the general election. The Democrats will seek to portray him as ideologically extreme, using this and his no-exceptions stance on abortion. He will need to rethink his stance, devise a better defense or emphasize countervailing policies to avoid being painted as another Republican who favors the rich.

No perfect campaigns or candidates exist. Rubio’s political skills and foreign policy prowess make him formidable, and Rubio is well positioned with a message that could resonate with all factions of the party. Still, his fundraising will have to show improvement; his campaign cannot evidence an inferiority complex toward Bush’s team; he must put in place an infrastructure; and he must exercise care in insulating himself from the onslaught of attacks the Democrats will launch. Moreover, a campaign does not succeed simply by good debate performances and eloquent foreign policy. The Rubio team should worry less about Bush and more about its own nuts and bolts.

Is he ready to lead his party? Not now. Can he get there? We will find out.

While the concerns seem reasonable, it’s also worth noting that most of the other candidates in the Republican field would gladly switch places with Rubio in terms of fundraising, polls, communication skills, and a general sense that he’s an acceptable candidate to broad swaths of the Republican base. Rubio clearly has the ability to emerge as the nominee; the question now becomes whether he can and will put together the campaign organization needed to get him in position to win.