Marco Rubio's incredible vanishing act

How the senator from Florida went from 2016 front-runner to GOP afterthought

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) was supposed to save the Republican Party.

A young Cuban-American with Tea Party cred who was beloved by the establishment, Rubio seemed like the perfect candidate to lead the much-discussed reformation of the GOP in the wake of President Obama's re-election. But less than a year later, Rubio has tumbled from the top of the presumed GOP presidential field.

Rubio's slide began over the summer, when he became the face of immigration reform. Part of the so-called Gang of Eight, Rubio did the heavy lifting, selling the plan to skeptical Senate Republicans and brushing back accusations that the bill amounted to amnesty that would bankrupt the country; he ripped a Heritage Foundation analysis that pegged the bill's cost to taxpayers at $6.3 trillion as not "legitimate."

Yet he failed to win over heavyweight pundits in the world of talk radio and wary House conservatives. Tea Partiers booed his name at an anti-immigration event in Washington, D.C.

Attuned to the delicate politics of the matter, Rubio vacillated as a final vote neared, suggesting at one point he would spike his own bill if he didn't like amendments pinned to it. And when the bill seemed doomed, he was not one of the two GOP senators — Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John Hoeven (N.D.) — who rescued it with a border security amendment.

That left Rubio "stuck with the worst of both political worlds," Bill Scher wrote in The Week.

"If immigration reform becomes law, Rubio won't get much credit from reform advocates, yet will still suffer plenty of blame from anti-immigration forces," he wrote. "And if it doesn't become law because of resistance from House conservatives, Rubio will have to explain why he couldn't make the sale."

Soon, polls showed Rubio's standing eroding with GOP voters. An ABC/Washington Post survey conducted in late June, as the immigration bill headed for passage in the Senate, found Rubio's net favorability among Republicans had plunged 18 points in the past year.

Then came the government shutdown, with fellow freshman Tea Partier Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) leading the charge.

While the other potential moderates in the GOP presidential field — Govs. Chris Christie (N.J.) and Bobby Jindal (La.), as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — shied away from Cruz's quixotic attempt to defund ObamaCare, Rubio, eager to ingratiate himself with conservatives, rushed to support him. When Cruz launched his faux-filibuster against the health-care law, Rubio joined him on the Senate floor.

"I want to thank the senator for his efforts here today, and in the weeks that have led us here," he said.

The two high fived via Twitter the next day:

It was an odd maneuver for Rubio. After making a very public move to the center months earlier, he suddenly raced right.

Rubio perhaps felt he had "narrowed his wiggling room" with conservatives and needed something drastic to win them over, wrote The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner. Yet the quick reversal made him seem "politically motivated and without any clear center."

Further, Rubio had already riled the base by embracing immigration reform; now he'd angered, well, pretty much everyone else.

Polls have shown public opinion of the GOP sinking to historic lows. In the latest bad news for the party, a Washington Post/ABC News survey Monday found that three fourths of all Americans disapproved of how the GOP had handled the budget negotiations.

Last December, Rubio led the 2016 GOP field at 20 percent. He's down to half that now, according to a PPP survey from late September, falling all the way to a fifth-place tie with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Other recent polls have similarly shown him dropping way behind.

With the shutdown dragging on, Rubio has practically disappeared from the public eye except for a speech at the Value Voter's Summit. While Cruz has kept preaching his case to zealous Tea Party fans, Rubio has receded into the background, quietly distancing himself from the mess.

We're still a long way from 2016, and Rubio could very well repair his image and leapfrog the GOP field. For now, though, he's marginalized himself on both sides, and he'll need to earn some serious goodwill to restore his once-sterling standing.

Above all, it's a lesson to other would-be presidential contenders: You cross the Republican base at your peril.


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