In every election cycle, there is a candidate who looks great on paper, but for mysterious reasons fails to click with the voters and fades away. (Remember Tim Pawlenty? Jon Huntsman? Hillary Clinton?) This is part of what makes politics so interesting.
To the untrained eye, it might look like the candidate who is being cast in this role this cycle is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
On paper, Rubio is a great candidate: young, charismatic, Latino, with an inspiring life story. He is clearly smart and full of political savvy. And yet he is not generating much excitement yet. The air is being sucked out of the room by his fellow Floridian Jeb Bush; Scott Walker, who boasts an impressive record and has an easy rapport with evangelicals; and Ted Cruz's grab for a supermajority of the anti-establishment vote.
When he got to the Senate, Rubio had a clever plan. Get immigration reform passed, and that way establish the kind of bipartisan legislative record that is a perfect setup for a presidential run. He would also earn the appreciation of the GOP establishment, which is dying to back a pro-immigration, pro-free market Latino — all while falling back on his Tea Party background and the rest of his very conservative record to get the base to forgive one heresy. But the bill died and the gambit failed. Now the conventional wisdom is that the immigration issue is an albatross around his neck.
Rubio has tried to reinvent himself by putting forward what is by far the best policy agenda of any candidate, including an innovative tax plan and an ambitious economic opportunity agenda. But in the superficial world of politics that hasn't made many waves.
And so, it seems, Rubio is destined to be stuck in the second tier.
But I think this view overlooks one crucial element — Rubio himself.
He clawed his way up to the top of Florida politics starting at a young age, and won a seat in the Senate in a startling underdog campaign. There's a reason for that.
Every successful politician has a different way of wooing voters. For Rubio, his unique skill is that he's a convincer. He is not the greatest speech-giver or emoter of his generation. But he has a very well-developed talent for explaining his positions in a way that simply convinces people. The stories of him turning around roomfuls of skeptical people are too many to ignore.
That asset will be enormously valuable in the town halls of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.
It might not sound like much, but it's exactly that sort of political talent that upsets are made of, particularly when it's combined with his reformist conservative policies and appealing background. Were it not for the congressional debacle on immigration — his position on which barely differs from that of the early frontrunner Jeb Bush — he would be considered, more or less, a complete package.
Marco Rubio is the most underrated candidate this cycle.