WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio on Monday became the latest presidential aspirant to officially enter the ranks of the 2016 White House contenders. The first-term Republican senator from Florida announced his candidacy during a conference call to donors, saying he is uniquely qualified to represent the future of the GOP.
Rubio later kicked off his campaign at a rally in Miami's Freedom Tower, a kind of Ellis Island for Cuban émigrés in Florida, styling himself as a next-generation leader equipped with ideas for the future, instead of from the past, in contrast to competitors like Republican former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both of whom hail from storied political dynasties.
"Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past," Rubio said. "So that is why tonight, grounded by the lessons of our history but inspired bythe promise of our future, I announced my candidacy for the president of the United States."
He specifically referred to Clinton, who announced her presidential bid Sunday, as a "leader of yesterday." Rubio ticked off a long list of conservative policy proposals in his address, vowing to cut taxes, reduce spending, reduce regulations, promote school choice, repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and "modernize immigration laws."
At 43 years old, Rubio is among the youngest of the major presidential contenders, and he has made the story of how his Cuban-American immigrant parents built a life for themselves in the United States — his father working as a hotel bartender and his mother as a housekeeper — a central part of his personal narrative, themes he referred to throughout his speech.
"My candidacy might seem improbable to some watching from abroad. In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful," he said. "But I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege."
Alfonso Aguilar, a former official in the George W. Bush administration who now runs the Latino Partnership out of the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank, said Rubio's campaign is a positive development for a party that has struggled to attract young and minority voters.
"Here we have a young candidate who happens to be a Hispanic son of immigrants," Aguilar said. "I think that actually helps the Republicans show that there’s diversity within the party."
Still, even as he appears able to present a fresh face, Rubio is a traditional conservative on social and economic issues and has adopted a hawkish posture on foreign policy. He gave one of the most detailed defenses of Indiana’s controversial “religious freedom” law earlier this month, opposes same-sex marriage and abortion and has called for a more robust role for the United States in the world, railing against President Barack Obama's efforts to ease tensions with Cuba.
Whereas other Republicans in the race — Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — have staked out distinct political identities and courted specific constituencies in the GOP base, how Rubio positions himself in the race for the party's nomination remains a mystery.
"He's trying to have it both ways. He’s trying to be conservative enough without being scary and mainstream enough without being boring or conventional," said Mac Stipanovich, a Florida GOP lobbyist. "If he pulls that off, he will do well, and if he doesn’t, he'll fall between the sawhorses and hurt himself."
Rubio’s relationship with the Latino community complicates his path to the nomination. He first championed efforts in 2013 to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate that included a path to legal status for a certain portion of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, only to back away from the plan after it sparked a conservative backlash. The move left Latino activists and those in the GOP staunchly opposed to immigration reform feeling betrayed. Rubio has said he miscalculated Americans’ desire to secure the border first.
"He was going to be an immigration reformer until it got hard and controversial," said Stipanovich, a Bush supporter, noting that Bush has maintained his support for immigration reform. "[Rubio] has so far proven himself to be heat-averse."
A survey conducted in November by the polling firm Latino Decisions found that 36 percent of the national Hispanic electorate has an unfavorable view of Rubio and 31 percent hold a favorable view.
"We find no evidence that Rubio’s candidacy will draw significant Latino support for his candidacy or for his party more generally," pollsters Matt Baretto and Gary Segura wrote in their release of the findings last week.
Immigrations advocacy groups were quick to slam his entrance into the race.
“Marco Rubio now embraces anti-immigration positions that are opposed by most of the Latino and immigrant population," Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America's Voice, said in a statement. "Instead of demonstrating fresh leadership, Rubio’s immigration backtracking looks an awful lot like the old way of thinking, with the result that Sen. Rubio is now distrusted by both sides in the immigration debate."
Since the immigration fallout, his fortunes have sunk considerably in the GOP. His support in polls is mired in the single digits, trailing contenders like Bush, Paul and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Supporters and aides, however, say it would be a mistake to underestimate Rubio, who has beaten tough odds before. He started his political career as a West Miami commissioner and went onto become Florida’s first Cuban-American House speaker before pulling off an upset victory against then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the Florida Senate election in 2010.
Rubio anticipated and rebutted criticism that he was too young and inexperienced to win the presidency. "I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn," he said. "But I cannot. Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake and I can make a difference as president."
The stakes are unusually high for Rubio, who will not seek re-election to the Senate as he campaigns for president.
With wire services