HOLLIS, New Hampshire – Marco Rubio’s speech to a crowded barn here was more seminar than rallying cry.
There were few applause lines, and red meat was in short supply. Instead, the Florida Republican senator, eyeing a 2016 presidential run in the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation primary, put on his wonk hat and outlined his “21st century” ideas on tax policy, higher education and foreign affairs, all of which are outlined in his new book “American Dreams."
This is the “reform conservatism” that Rubio has spent the last year pounding away at as his 2016 calling card. Over that time he’s gathered ideas from like-minded think tanks pushing the GOP to confront middle class woes with more than just tax cuts for the wealthy, but also ideas like expanded tax credits for families or childless workers or new types of loan repayments for college students based on future income. In doing so, Rubio is pitching a possible way forward for Republicans after being tagged the party of the rich in 2012.
“The Republican Party … says, ‘That’s it, we can grow the economy, everyone will be better off,’” Rubio told the crowd. “That isn’t true. We can’t just stop right there.”
But no matter what topic Rubio chose to focus on in his own speeches, one nagging issue kept popping up throughout his trip: immigration.
After his speech, a voter at the town hall told Rubio that the senator had “lost” him with his immigration bill and demanded Rubio “commit, if elected president, to send home every single person that's violated our country's laws and is here illegally.” It was the first of several tough questions Rubio would receive on the topic from the left and the right while in New Hampshire.
"I don't think anyone can commit that to you," Rubio replied. "You have 12 million human beings in America, most of whom we don't even know who they are and some of them whom our country's not going to tolerate rounding up and sending back.”
RELATED: Rubio's 2016 transformation
Rubio is still defined for many voters by his work to help craft a bipartisan, comprehensive reform bill that passed the Senate and his subsequent decision to abandon it. His maneuvering seems to have a hit a sour spot that pleases no one. Conservatives feel betrayed by his work on the legislation, which Rubio referred to in Hollis at one point as “the bill that was not very popular.” Immigration reform advocates, for their part, feel the same away about his decision to abandon it.
Rubio's difficulties overcoming the issue have knocked him down in the polls – he averages about 5% support in national surveys of GOP voters -- and quieted the early presidential boomlet he enjoyed after President Obama’s re-election. As if that weren’t bad enough, one of Rubio’s political mentors, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is planning his own reformer bid for the GOP nomination and taking a bunch of Rubio’s top Florida supporters and donors with him.
"You have 12 million human beings in America, most of whom we don’t even know who they are and some of them whom our country’s not going to tolerate rounding up and sending back."'
And yet Rubio is pushing ahead. He was accompanied at his events by Jim Merrill, Mitt Romney’s well-respected 2012 New Hampshire strategist, who joined Rubio’s PAC this week. The New York Times reported this week that Rubio has already told donors he’s all in.
This isn’t a light decision by Rubio. He’s up for re-election and has already said he won’t run for Senate if he pursues the White House. He’s young enough to build up his credentials and run again in 2020 or 2024 or beyond. Why risk it now?
The answer is he would be crazy not to run. Bush is no sure thing, and Rubio may be better positioned than any other Republican to surge into the front-runner spot if he flames out.
Bush’s strength lies in his ability to consolidate establishment support, raise gobs of cash and line up top staffers to run his operation. It does not lie, so far, in the polls, where Bush rarely cracks 20% even when he leads the GOP field and performs no better than his rivals – and in some cases, even worse -- in matchups with undeclared Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. He has significant vulnerabilities as well – his support for immigration reform draws similar scorn to Rubio’s, and Bush’s rivals are sharpening the knives for attacks on his support for Common Core education standards.
Rubio, without naming Bush, dug into the latter himself in Hollis, saying he feared Common Core “will be turned into a weapon by the federal government” to deny education funding to states that resist it.
If Bush can’t turn his advantages into broader GOP support by the end of the year, you can expect establishment and rank-and-file Republicans alike to start scrambling for alternatives. This is exactly what happened in late 2011 -- while Mitt Romney ultimately won, his sagging numbers prompted Texas Gov. Rick Perry to enter the race and GOP donors to consider drafting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into an emergency run.
RELATED: Rubio sends major 2016 signals
Of all the candidates, Rubio may strike the next best balance between a conservative base demanding one of their own and big donors who want to win without rocking the party boat too hard. Rubio is polished, and at 43 years old he presents a youthful contrast to Clinton and Bush. Rubio's a passionate hawk whose views on national security won’t set off alarm bells in establishment circles if he gets close to the nomination. That trait could be especially crucial against likely rivals Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, whose more unconventional views make some in the party nervous, and against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is surging in polls but still new to the foreign policy arena.
The potential is all there – if only he can get past immigration.
In the short term, Rubio is pitching conservatives on his willingness to deport immigrants at faster rates. Responding to a question in Hollis about the potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security over immigration, he urged Congress to force President Obama to accept legislation that would undo the 2012 program to protect DREAMers – immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children -- and 2014 executive action to protect adult immigrants from deportation. Rubio said Republicans shouldn’t back down and pass a bill to fund Homeland Security without the immigration provisions.
“When we filibuster, we get accused of shutting down the government. If they filibuster, we're accused of shutting down the government,” Rubio said. “We need to point out that hypocrisy.”
This kind of tough talk comes with a price, however. At a book signing in Manchester less than two hours later, Eva Castillo, a Venezuelan immigrant, pushed Rubio to explain why he no longer supported his own bipartisan bill.
“Who would you deport first?” Castillo asked.
"This country doesn’t owe me anything. America doesn’t owe anyone anything, but I can tell you: I owe America everything."'
“I’m not going to waste my time on things that can’t pass,” Rubio replied. Instead, he said Congress would need to prove it can crack down on illegal immigration first.
The next morning at St. Anselm College’s Politics and Eggs breakfast, a standard stop for 2016 hopefuls, Rubio again laid out his border-first approach after getting yet another audience question on the current standoff over immigration in Congress.
“The hardest lesson of the last two years is that people are willing to be very reasonable about immigration, but not until you prove to them that future immigration will be controlled,” Rubio said.
The message may be a difficult sell, but the messenger is not without his gifts. New Hampshire voters are fearless about grilling presidential hopefuls, and the town hall crowd in Hollis came throwing fastballs. In addition to three separate questions on immigration, one voter wanted to know what Rubio would do about “dark money from billionaires.” Another wanted to know specific reforms Rubio would back to confront “cronyism and bloated spending.” Two people brought up former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s comments that Obama doesn’t love America, an issue that tripped up Walker after he refused to say whether he agreed.
At every turn, Rubio was ready with a quick and disciplined answer. As he did last week, Rubio offered up a deft response to the Giuliani sound bite – in this case to an audience member who agreed with it -- in which he conceded that Obama “loves his country,” but quickly pivoted to a slick attack at “gotcha” questions.
“Every single day Joe Biden says something that would end my career if I said it once -- and I never hear Democrats having to answer for him,” Rubio said. “I just wonder, why is it that I must always answer for someone else in my party?”
While Rubio’s two New Hampshire speeches weren’t especially noteworthy on their own, he held audiences’ attention with well-placed details about his family’s biography. He recounted how his father left Cuba for a career as a bartender in the United States while his mother cleaned hotels to support the family. He described how Social Security and Medicare helped her retire. During a long passage on reforming higher education he mentioned his $100,000 student loan bill, which he only recently paid off with profits from his 2012 memoirs (“Now available in paperback!” he added.)
“This country doesn’t owe me anything,” Rubio said in Hollis. “America doesn’t owe anyone anything, but I can tell you: I owe America everything.”
Rubio’s up-by-his-bootstraps biography could be a tempting weapon for Republicans eager to attack Clinton as wealthy and out of touch in 2016, and it’s a message that Bush will have problems delivering given his privileged background as the son and brother of former presidents. In a subtle reminder of Bush’s weakness on that front, Rubio said on Tuesday that if his parents hadn’t emigrated from Cuba, “there’s no way I could have the same dreams and potentially the same future as the son of a president or the son of a millionaire.”
At the very least, the free market in New Hampshire appears to be hedging their bets on Rubio’s viability. At his book signing on Monday, one scraggly young entrepreneur presented Rubio with a stack of 10 books to sign, then circled around to hand over another set of photos and take a picture with the Senator to verify their authenticity. Rubio was game, but looked puzzled.
“What do you guys do with these all these?” he asked.
“To who? Who will buy this?”
The lowest price for a signed copy of President Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” on Amazon is $495.00.