MIAMI – Pledging to “capture the promise of this new century,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) launched his presidential campaign Monday evening in his hometown of Miami.
“Today, grounded by the lessons of our history, and inspired by the promise of our future, I announce my candidacy for president of the United States,” Rubio told a cheering crowd of supporters.
With his relative youth and immigrant background, Rubio positioned himself as the candidate of the new millennium, an explicit contrast with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former president, and an implicit contrast with Republican rival and fellow Floridian Jeb Bush, son and brother of presidents.
“Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday,” Rubio said, referring to Clinton’s own campaign launch on Sunday. “Yesterday is over, and we are never going back. We Americans are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future.”
It was one of several shots at the previous generation of boomer politicians he hopes to leapfrog to the White House. In another passage, Rubio complained America’s leaders “were busy looking backward” and “put us at a disadvantage by taxing and borrowing and regulating like it was 1999,” when Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, was in office.
“The final verdict on our generation will be written by Americans who are not yet born,” Rubio said. “Let us make sure they record that we made the right choice, that in the early years of this century, faced with a rapidly changing and uncertain world, our generation rose to face the great challenges of this time.”
As Rubio noted in his remarks, he kicked off his campaign at the Freedom Tower, which served as a processing center for many of the Cuban exiles who fled Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Rubio, whose parents left Cuba shortly before Castro took power, offered up his working class roots as an idyllic example of the American dream he sought to preserve.
“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,” Rubio said.
Turning to policy, Rubio pledged to “reform our tax code,” “reduce regulations and reduce spending,” “modernize our immigration laws” and reform higher education so that students no longer graduate with “a mountain of debt and degrees that no longer lead to jobs.”
On foreign policy, he pledged to confront “aggression” from China and Russia, decried human rights abuses in Cuba and drew wild applause decrying the White House’s “outrageous concessions to Iran and its hostility to Israel.”
Rubio’s pitch as the messenger of a new generation of conservatives resonated with supporters at the event. Barbara Rodriguez, 62, told msnbc she was “neck-and-neck” in choosing between Rubio and Bush, who she considered a highly successful governor, but decided the senator was “the future, not the same old.”
“People don’t want a Clinton or a Bush again,” she said.
Keegan Steele, 18, told msnbc he was eager to vote for Rubio in his first election.
“He has integrity, he has passion,” Steele said. “I feel like, for younger voters, it will be contagious.”
Democrats argue Rubio’s young reformer image is a ruse and that he offers conventional conservative positions on most major issues. Rubio is pro-life, anti-gay marriage and a climate science skeptic. He has also proposed an estimated $4 trillion tax cut that would offer new tax credits for middle class families, but eliminate capital gains and estate taxes for the ultra-wealthy.
“Although he’s doing his best to present himself as this fresh and new face, he’s really just another flat earth society worshiper,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on msnbc’s “The Rundown with Jose Diaz-Balart” earlier Monday. “This is a guy who has fully and wholly embraced all the same tired policies Republicans have tried, that have failed, that got us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”
Rubio begins the race behind in the polls as the still-undeclared Bush, his former political mentor, occupies the front-runner role. In addition, Rubio will have to contend with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s broad conservative appeal, Sen. Ted Cruz’s ties to the tea party grassroots, Sen. Rand Paul’s libertarian appeal, and Mike Huckabee’s popularity with social conservative, among other likely rivals.
For a brief time after the 2012 election, Rubio was considered a possible front-runner for the GOP nomination as top Republican officials searched for a candidate who could cut into Democrats’ commanding lead with Latino voters and millennials. As a youthful, Spanish-speaking son of immigrants in a diverse swing state who won a tough senate primary with tea party support, Rubio seemed heaven-sent. But his stock fell after he alienated conservatives with an immigration reform bill that would have put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, then angered Latino and immigration activists by backing away from his own bill in favor of a piecemeal approach that starts with border security.
Leading advocacy groups, including America’s Voice, put out statements decrying Rubio’s launch on Monday and dozens of pro-reform activists protested outside the Freedom Tower chanting in English and Spanish. Many held signs decrying Rubio for opposing Obama’s executive programs, DACA and DAPA, which grant temporary deportation relief to undocumented immigrants. “Being Latino is not enough,” one sign read.
Despite his difficulties, Rubio is well liked among Republicans, and many GOP voters tell pollsters he would be an acceptable nominee – even if he isn’t their first choice. His natural political talents give him an opening to win Republicans of all stripes over, especially if Bush fails to consolidate support early in the race.