PARK CITY, Utah – While Jeb Bush answers questions about his campaign shakeup overseas, Marco Rubio will be playing flag football with dozens of the wealthy donors who backed Mitt Romney in 2012 – just the latest chance for Rubio to encroach on territory once thought locked down by his friend and mentor.
As Bush’s still-officially-non-campaign stumbles, Rubio is increasingly taking advantage. He’s drawing good crowds on the early state campaign trail, raking in big money from longstanding GOP donors, and successfully battling back against negative stories about his personal finances and driving record.
“The latest one is, I shouldn’t run for president because I’m not rich enough,” Rubio said Saturday in Iowa at Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride fundraiser – repeating what he had told a crowd that packed a Holiday Inn ballroom earlier that day. “My wife and I work to ensure that we have enough money to send our kids to a private Christian education. And we have a mortgage that we pay every month. But you know what the biggest debt I have is? It’s not to a bank – it’s to the United States of America.”
The line was an addition to his standard campaign speech, and advance response to a then-unpublished New York Times story detailing Rubio’s personal financial issues – buying an expensive boat, liquidating a personal retirement account at considerable cost – and his track record of commingling personal and political money, like when he used a state Republican Party credit card for his own expenses.
The story, along with one looking at Rubio’s four traffic tickets in 17 years in Miami, is an example of the early vetting process that many Republicans have speculated could prevent Rubio from ever winning the nomination, let alone the White House. And his advance response shows just how closely his campaign was following the story. In Iowa, his team was also quick to point out he slept at the Holiday Inn to save money. But so far, Rubio’s weathering the hits just fine – turning the fire back on the newspaper.
“I can tell you, being from Miami, where you drive everywhere, having four tickets in 17 years is not considered bad,” Rubio told msnbc in a recent interview. “Let me just say, I really don’t like red light cameras. That’s a big scam.”
Rubio’s rise has surprised some observers, including many in Bush’s circle – a number of whom expected Rubio to sit out the race entirely. Now they’re increasingly focused on trying to disqualify him, pointing reporters to critical stories and doling out negative information.
So far, it hasn’t stuck – but that’s not to say there isn’t plenty more in Rubio’s past that’s yet to come to light. And the Florida senator is consistently behind in polling to rivals like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.But GOP voters consistently list Rubio as their second choice – and when an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked Republicans to say whether they’d be willing to vote for a particular candidate, Rubio came out on top with 75% saying they’d consider voting for him.
And so far, Rubio has impressed key donors, some of whom supported former President George W. Bush. After his events in Iowa last week, Rubio was flying on to California for a fundraiser at the home of Oracle founder and billionaire Larry Ellison, who donated millions to a group backing Romney in 2012.
Rubio will have another chance to do that this weekend, where he’ll give a speech (several hours after the flag football game) to a gathering of Romney’s supporters and donors at the luxury Stein Ericksen resort in the Utah mountains. He’s already a favorite with Romney supporters, remembered as a willing and tireless surrogate on Romney’s behalf – unlike New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another one of the attendees, who irritated Romney’s campaign with his scheduling and travel demands.
It’s not yet clear how far Romney will push his role as potential kingmaker in the GOP field. He hasn’t yet said whether he’ll endorse a candidate during the primary process. But many of the wealthy backers who raised nearly $1 billion for him in 2012 are looking for a signal, and the Utah event provides a chance for them to hear from candidates directly.
Also in attendance at the summit are Ohio Gov. John Kasich; former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; North Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Attendees will also have the chance to go skeet shooting with Graham or take a hot air balloon ride with a “special guest”; Ann Romney is leading a horse-riding expedition.
Missing are Sen. Rand Paul, who attended the summit in 2014, and Bush, who’s finishing a three-country trip to Europe.
“A new century is here. We should embrace it,” Rubio said in Iowa. “If we keep promoting the same people, we will get the same result – and the future will leave us behind.”