Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., rallies supporters during a three-day campaign swing through southern Nevada. (Photo: AP/John Locher)
LAS VEGAS — Marco Rubio had just finished wooing a group of Christian businessmen at the posh Canyon Gate Country Club, a few miles east of the Strip. The hot afternoon sun was shining on the Italianate columns of the clubhouse. Golf carts glided silently over flawless green fairways. The mountains of Red Rock Canyon rose in the distance. It was a scene fit for a glossy real estate brochure, or perhaps a Republican campaign commercial.
But in the parking lot, a pair of prominent national political reporters — one male, one female — were complaining.
“He never says anything new,” the woman said with a sigh.
“Very scripted,” the man agreed.
“My editors are like, ‘Trump attacked Rubio today. How did Rubio respond?’” the woman continued. “And I have to be like, ‘He didn’t. It was just the same old stump speech. Again.’”
My colleagues weren’t wrong about the junior senator from Florida. Over the course of a three-day trip to the Las Vegas metro area, I heard Rubio address the good people of Nevada five times, and each time his remarks were pretty much identical. Sometimes his riff about how “the world is changing faster than ever” would come before the part about America being “the only nation on earth” where you aren’t “stuck” in the same class as your parents; sometimes it would come after. Sometimes Rubio would deliver six policy prescriptions; sometimes he would stop at five. Otherwise, there was little variation — just the candidate, slightly sweaty in his tie and shirt sleeves, smoothly repeating everything he’d said at the previous stop.
For campaign reporters who have experienced Donald Trump’s impulsive braggadocio, Jeb Bush’s clumsy Q&As, John Kasich’s entertaining tangents and Ted Cruz’s spotlight-seeking exaggerations, Rubio isn’t particularly exciting to cover. He studiously avoids “making news,” choosing instead to stick to the script.
But here’s the thing about Rubio’s script: it’s very, very good. Good enough, potentially, to win him the nomination.
For the first few months of the 2016 presidential campaign, Rubio loitered in the middle of the Republican pack. Now, after a pair of crisp debate performances, with the rest of the GOP’s so-called establishment candidates in decline — Bush has proven to be a bumbling campaigner, Kasich is losing what little steam he had, and Walker basically imploded before ending his bid last month — Rubio is beginning to rise in the polls. According to the latest RealClear Politics average, he’s now in third place nationally, behind Trump and Ben Carson. He was in seventh as recently as August.
Still, Rubio’s momentum won’t matter unless he performs well in next year’s primaries and caucuses. Not every indicator is pointing his way. Last week, the campaign announced that it had raised a lackluster $6 million in the third quarter of 2016, down from $9 million the previous quarter. Bush raked in more than $13 million.
SLIDESHOW: The rise of Marco Rubio >>
Rubio’s advisers acknowledge that the summer was slow. Yet they also insist that everything is going according to plan. (In Vegas, Rubio made sure to meet with GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who has been trying to decide which candidate to support and is now said to be favoring the Floridian.) "We’re going to win because we have the best candidate with the clearest message,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told me earlier this month, ”not just because we have more money than other candidates.”
Which brings us back to the script.
The first time I saw Rubio pitch himself for the presidency was back in April at his campaign kickoff in Miami. His speech was almost too slick — seductive at first, but ultimately kind of shallow. Like he was auditioning to play the leader of the free world on a new network drama.
Ever since, he’s been road-testing his message in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere. Sharpening it. Refining it. Perfecting it. As a result, the version I heard over and over again Nevada is much stronger than the one I first heard in Florida.
But that’s not just because the script has evolved. It’s also because the moment suddenly seems right for what Rubio has to say.
The early knock on the senator was that he had no natural constituency, and that whatever constituency he did have was going to gravitate toward Bush instead.
But Bush has fizzled. The outsiders — Trump, Carson and Carly Fiorina — are unlikely to last. And the factional candidates — conservative Cruz, moderate Kasich and libertarian Rand Paul — can’t seem to cross over.
Given the fractured field and the chaos on Capitol Hill, the Republican Party may now need a candidate with the subtlety and skill — the Obama-esque dexterity — to be, if not all things to all people, then at least enough things to enough people: conservatives and moderates, insiders and outsiders, realists and ideologues.
And that, it turns out, is exactly what Rubio is trying to be.
Rubio’s first rally in Nevada was at Sun City Summerlin, the largest “active adult” community in the state. Before the senator showed up, I met two active adults named Katie Murrell and Judy Pugmire. They were first in line. Murrell, a whippet-thin and bottle-blonde 74-year-old with a reedy voice and a lot to say, taught for 40 years in Newport Beach, Calif.; Pugmire, 75, the quieter of the two, was still teaching part-time at a local community college. They told me they were neighbors.
Rubio poses for photos with supporters in Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher/AP)
I asked why they’d decided to come to the rally. Murrell, naturally, answered first.
“You know, I really like Trump,” she said. “Trump’s in town too.” (He’d recently finished rallying voters on the Strip.) “If you want to cover big things, cover Trump.”
Pugmire nodded. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “This country is sick and tired of politicians. That’s why you see Trump and Carly and Ben Carson getting all this…”
Merrill cut in. “The Republicans are so screwed up,” she snapped. “Trump’s the only one, maybe, who can deal with things.”
“But what about Rubio?” I asked.
Murrell turned to Pugmire, ceding the floor.
“Well, I came because I’m a conservative,” Pugmire said. “I want to listen to him.”
A few minutes later, Rubio and his entourage arrived. Dozens of top donors filled the VIP seats to the right of the stage. After the rally, they’d be picnicking and playing touch football with Rubio himself; the following day would be spent attending various football-themed events — “Quarterbacking Victory”; “Talking the Playbook” — at the swanky Bellagio hotel and casino.
In person, Rubio looks and acts a little like Matt Damon. The same stocky ex-athlete’s build. The same earnest all-American baritone. The same quick wit followed by the same self-effacing smile, as if he’s trying to charm you and apologizing for trying to charm you at the same time.
The senator started his speech the same way he would start every speech in Nevada: by mentioning that he’d spent part of his childhood in Las Vegas.
“Believe it or not, we still have more family in southern Nevada than in South Florida,” he told the crowd. “So if I only win by 68 votes here, you’ll know why.”
Rubio’s parents moved from Miami in 1979 and stayed until Rubio, now 44, was in the eighth grade. His dad tended bar at an off-Strip casino called Sam’s Club; his mother worked at the Imperial Palace. And yet in Summerlin he explained that “growing up,” he “remember[s] never feeling limited” to following in his parents’ modest footsteps. Why? Because they taught him he was “blessed to be a citizen of the one place on earth where the son of a bartender and a maid could be anything he wanted to be.”
“If we ever lose that,” Rubio said, “we stop being special.”
In typical Republican fashion, the senator went on to warn that America was, in fact, “on the verge” of losing its special status.
But then Rubio pivoted; he stopped sounding like a typical Republican and started sounding like someone who might actually win the White House. The problem, he admitted, isn’t President Obama. It isn’t even the Democrats. It’s ways in which the world is changing, and the speed at which it’s changing too. In the age of Amazon, Uber and Candy Crush, America has “a retirement system designed in the 1930s,” a “higher education system designed in the 1950s” and “tax policies designed in the 1980s and 1990s.”
“I wish I could tell you it’s one party, but it’s not,” Rubio told the crowd. “Both parties are out of touch. Both parties are out of date. And if we keep electing the same kind of people — the people who are ‘next in line,’ the people they tell us we have to vote for — nothing is going to change.”
At this point, Trump would have started insulting his rivals. But Rubio’s script is noticeably short on negativity. Instead, he spent the rest of his remarks delivering what he called “the good news”: his belief that if voters approach 2016 “not as a choice between Republicans and Democrats” but rather as a “generational choice” — if they reject the Jeb Bushes and Hillary Clintons of the world in favor of the future, as represented, of course, by Marco Rubio — then “our children and grandchildren will be the freest and most prosperous Americans who have ever lived.”
When I say “Obama-esque dexterity,” this is what I mean. For the next 20 minutes, Rubio talked policy: defense spending, Iran, taxes, regulations, the deficit, entitlement reform, energy, health care, education. His views were predictably conservative, but again and again, he expressed them in the language of empathy rather than ideology. He was more inclined to humanize an issue than politicize it.
The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart describes this maneuver well. “Rubio has mastered the same technique Barack Obama used so effectively when he was seeking the presidency,” Beinart recently wrote. “When faced with a controversial issue, he doffs his cap to the other side, pleads for civility and respect, insists that it’s a hard call — and then comes out exactly where you’d expect him to come out. … What [Obama and Rubio] share is their moderate-sounding rhetorical style.”
And so, when Rubio spoke about regulations, he insisted that the reason he wants to get them “under control” is because big businesses use regulations to “keep small businesses from competing.”
“The guys who have made it, who are rich and powerful, they’re going to be all right,” Rubio explained. “The people we have to be fighting for are the people who are trying to make it.”
When the senator spoke about energy, he praised domestic fossil fuels because they make “cooking food and heating a home cheaper” — especially for “a struggling family with a single mother who’s trying to get by on $10 an hour.”
When he spoke about health insurance, he confessed that it’s “a legitimate issue” that “we have to address.” Then he suggested that we scrap Obamacare and make health insurance more like auto insurance instead (which sounds sensible enough, even if it isn’t).
And when he spoke about higher education reform, he focused on expanding vocational education for teenagers who would rather be “welders, pipe fitters, or plumbers” than “philosophers,” while reducing the burden of student loans for their more collegiate peers.
“I tell you all this not just to show you how difficult these problems are,” Rubio said, “but to show you how we can fix them. There is no challenge we cannot solve.”
Rubio works the crowd after a rally at a Las Vegas retirement community. (Photo: John Locher/AP)
It was a message that encompassed many contradictions: conservative policy proposals, working-class rhetoric; insider savvy, outsider spirit. As a U.S. senator from one of the largest states in the nation, Rubio is technically as establishment as they come. But he made sure to remind the crowd in Summerlin that when he ran for the Senate in 2010 against sitting Gov. Charlie Crist, “the entire, and I mean the entire Republican establishment in Washington, D.C., was against me.”
“And by the way,” he added, “it’s very similar now.” In 2010, Rubio campaigned as a full-throated Tea Party candidate, and even though he’s recently been spending more time with the Council on Foreign Relations than the Florida Panhandle Patriots, he is still quick to portray himself as an outsider.
After Rubio had wrapped up his peroration — after he had celebrated his parents for working multiple jobs so he could have a better life; after he had insisted that what “unifies us as one people” is that “we’re all but a generation removed from someone who did that for us” — I made my way to the rope line, where Katie Murrell and Judy Pugmire were waiting to snap a photo with the senator.
“I didn’t know he had family here!” Murrell said as soon as she saw me. “That he’d grown up here!”
“I didn’t know that either!” Pugmire added.
“So how did Rubio compare to Trump?” I asked.
Pugmire’s reply would have been music to the senator’s ears, assuming he could have heard it over the Kid Rock song blasting through the speakers.
“Oh, for me, I would rather have Rubio,” she said. “There’s no question.”
Pugmire glanced back at the empty stage. “In many ways,” she added, “he reminds me of Ronald Reagan.”
If Rubio is going to connect in any of the early primary or caucus states, at least at first, Nevada is probably the place.
As the Summerlin event was winding down, I ran into Mike Slanker, a tall Ohioan in a checked sport coat and jeans. The top political strategist for both the governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, and the state’s junior senator, Dean Heller, Slanker signed on in May to run Rubio’s local operation. He told me Nevada could be a bellwether for his boss — a good lens through which to glimpse Rubio’s broader appeal.
Slanker’s basic point was that a Republican needs to click with two kinds of voters to win the White House: (a) voters who will pretty much vote for any GOP candidate and (b) voters who will only vote for the right GOP candidate. Not only does Nevada boast a more representative mix of both kinds of voters than say, conservative Iowa, moderate New Hampshire, or Tea Party-centric South Carolina; Rubio is already showing that he can appeal to both of them.
Experts in Nevada say that only four campaigns are really competing at this point: Rubio, Bush, Cruz and Rand Paul. Many think that Rubio has the early edge.
At Canyon Gate, I happened to overhear a conversation between one of Rubio’s advisers and legendary Nevada reporter Jon Ralston.
“How do you think we’re doing?” the adviser asked.
“You’ve got the best organization, as far as I can see,” Ralston replied.
“That’s good to hear,” the adviser said. “We think we’ll do well in the first three states … but we could really do well here.”
Nevada first held caucuses in 2008, and in 2012, only 38,000 Republicans participated. A well-informed source predicted that it could take a mere 10,000 votes to win this cycle’s contest. And so, from an organizational standpoint, the Rubio campaign is making sure to focus its fire on Nevada’s most reliable Republican voters.
“You have to remember who’s going to show up to caucus,” Slanker told me. “And who is that in this state? It’s Mormons and seniors.”
This explains why the campaign was targeting Summerlin’s active adults. It explains why Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison — a “big player in the Mormon community,” according to Slanker, and the chairman of Rubio’s Nevada campaign — would go on to introduce the senator at every rally. (As a kid in Las Vegas, Rubio himself was briefly a member of the Mormon Church.) It explains why Rubio would visit Boulder City, a Mormon enclave, the following day. And it explains why Rubio would be introduced there by former Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, a man Slanker described as “the godfather of the Mormon Church in this state.” Some Rubio donors are even claiming the candidate will be “the first Mormon president” if he wins next year, according to a recent BuzzFeed report.
At the same time, Rubio is also looking ahead and trying to avoid turning off the crossover voters who will prove critical in the general election — unlike most of his rivals.
“Nevada is a melting pot,” Slanker told me. “We have the fastest-growing Asian population in America. We have an exploding Hispanic population. Heck, we have an exploding population in general. And I think the folks who’ve been unwilling to come to the GOP, or just disinterested in politics in general, are kind of tired of a lot of the personalities in this party. In my mind, Marco is our best chance of reaching out and touching those people.”
If Slanker’s analysis sounds like spin, that’s because it is. But spin isn’t necessarily untrue. Kasich and Bush command little support among conservatives or anti-establishmentarians; Trump, Cruz, Carson and Fiorina are anathema to most of the rest of the electorate. But Rubio hasn’t alienated anyone, at least not yet.
Two days after Summerlin, Rubio attended a forum hosted by the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative Latino group, at St. Christopher Catholic School in North Las Vegas. (Rubio had briefly been a student there.) When asked about immigration reform, the senator again explained why he no longer supports the sort of comprehensive approach he once tried to shepherd through Congress. (“Part of being a good leader is figuring out what’s possible,” Rubio said. “And we don’t have the votes.”) But he also admitted that he still believes in a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants somewhere down the line.
“After 10 years with a work permit, I personally support—and some people don’t agree with me—allowing people to apply to for a green card,” Rubio explained. “And obviously, after three or five years, you’d be eligible to apply for citizenship.”
The mostly Latino crowd applauded. “We’re talking about real people here,” Rubio said. “They’re human beings with lives and families.”
On the ground in Nevada, Rubio’s all-things-to-all-people approach — his knack for being conservative while sounding moderate — seems to be working. For me, the clearest proof came in a pair of chance encounters I had at two separate Rubio events.
The first was in Summerlin. I initially assumed that retiree Nancy Garrity was a GOP loyalist, because who else attends Republican rallies?
“Yeah!” she almost shouted when I asked if she was supporting Rubio. “He’s smart. When they ask him a question, he answers it. He doesn’t just insult somebody else.”
But then I asked Garrity if Rubio might be too young for the presidency — and her answer surprised me.
“Kennedy was young too,” she said.
“But Kennedy was a Democrat.”
“Yep,” she nodded. “And so was Barack Obama.”
I must have looked confused.
“I really have to tell you this,” Garrity said. “I’m a registered Democrat. But if Rubio becomes the nominee, I will definitely vote for him. I really will.”
“What about the rest of the Republicans?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she said. “I’d rather vote for Hillary.”
I happened upon very different kind of voter the following day at the Havana Grill, a Cuban restaurant miles from the Vegas Strip. Rubio was scheduled to show up in few minutes for a happy hour speech; in the meantime, I struggled to find a place to stand amid the throng of supporters. Suddenly, I overheard a guy with a goatee and an American-flag T-shirt telling another guy about his recent confrontation with a group of Hispanics.
“We didn’t back down,” said the guy with the goatee. “When they start filling my ears with their bullcrap they’re going to get it back. They said, ‘You’re a racist,’ and I’m like, ‘So what? You don’t like different races? Blame God for it, man.’”
“I think the real racists are Democrats,” said the other guy. “They don’t think black people are smart enough to take care of themselves.”
“They’re not!” said the guy with the goatee. “They have to have all this special stuff. They can run fast, though. They’re making money doing that. I can watch them bash their heads playing football on Sunday. It don’t matter if they become rich basketball players — they’ll still be thugs and try to kill somebody. It don’t matter.”
The guy with the goatee paused for a moment.
“I like Marco,” he finally said. “He’s getting a lot of the establishment support. I’m starting to think he should be the nominee instead of Jeb.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Any Republican skilled enough to secure the support of an avowed Democrat like Nancy Garrity without alienating an unabashed racist like the guy with the goatee — and vice versa — probably has a bright future ahead of him.
Rubio at the Havana Grill restaurant in Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher/AP)
Fifteen minutes later, Rubio walked on stage. He spotted a waitress carrying a tray of cocktails through the crowd.
“They’re handing out mojitos in the middle of my speech,” Rubio said, smiling. “I love it. I promise that has never happened before.”
A fan in the front of the room offered him one.
“No, no, no,” he said, waving off the beverage. “I drink water.” But the crowd insisted, and Rubio finally allowed himself a Cuban coffee.
“You guys are messing up my stump speech,” the candidate said with a smile. For a few seconds, at least, Rubio had departed from his script.
He took a sip from the tacitas.
“OK,” he said. “I’m ready now.”