TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - It wasn't hard, at a recent Republican fundraising dinner in Tampa, to listen to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and imagine that you were still hearing a presidential candidate. His themes were decidedly national, focusing on the stakes of the election and the urgency of doing something soon about the country's future.
"Every generation of Americans before us has confronted our challenges, and they have solved them, and now is the time for us to do the same," Rubio said. "And the good news is we still have time to do it. The bad news is we don't have much time left. We do not have forever."
A few moments later, though, Rubio ruefully acknowledged the end of his presidential ambitions, at least for now. He discussed watching Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of the former chief of staff for President Barack Obama, pinning some of the blame for Obamacare's struggles on one of Rubio's legislative initiatives.
"You know what I said?" Rubio asked. "I said, 'Where the hell was that guy in January?' "
Whether Emanuel's statement would have helped Rubio in his bid for the presidential nomination in a party that hates Obamacare is nothing more now than a "what if?" As he runs in the Nov. 8 election, Rubio is a former White House contender struggling to turn back an electoral tide not of his making to hold onto a Senate seat he sought with hesitation in 2010 and again this year.
Rubio's run for the presidency and its failure continue to haunt his Senate bid in sometimes contradictory fashions. He is pilloried both for trying to leave the Senate seat and for trying to retain it. Critics hammer him over the missed votes that Rubio says were a natural consequence of running for president, and for his unwillingness to completely rule out taking a shot at the White House in 2020.
At the same time, the man who defeated Rubio in the Republican presidential primary has become dead weight for the senator in his run for re-election. Rubio has held to his pledge to endorse the winner of the GOP primary, even as Donald Trump's caustic speeches and vulgar comments about women have made the standard-bearer increasingly toxic.
In many ways, Rubio is still running his presidential bid: trying to build a new path for the Republican Party, and trying to do so around the larger-than-life obstacle that is Trump. If he fails this time, it won't just be his vision of the GOP that will be in danger. His own political career could be smashed.
'Happy that I made the decision'
By now, most Florida voters are familiar with Rubio's biography, having heard the story at increasing volume over the last six years: The son of Cuban immigrants who rose to be one of the youngest speakers in the history of the Florida House. A "man in a hurry" who pushed a sitting governor out of the Republican Party in a U.S. Senate primary, then set his sights on the White House. The accomplished orator who might have been the first Latino to win a major-party presidential nomination had it not been for the Trump typhoon.
The White House bid also dredged up all of the negative stories that Rubio had been forced to address in his initial U.S. Senate run, from questions about his personal finances to criticisms of his use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card. And it forced Rubio into a pledge that would later make his political life incredibly awkward, promising not to run for re-election to the Senate regardless of how his presidential ambitions turned out.
Still, the presidential race was the fulfillment of years of speculation about Rubio's future. Former state Rep. Ralph Arza, who ran against Rubio for speaker before becoming a political ally, said he remembers meeting Rubio in 2003 or 2004 when they discussed how to resolve their contest.
"I had a premonition that this young man has a chance to one day be president of the United States," Arza said.
But Trump routed Rubio in the Florida primary in March, prompting the senator to end his presidential campaign. Roughly three months after that, party leaders called on Rubio to run for the Senate again. He finally agreed, reshaping a race that had already been joined by a half-dozen others, including his friend, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
Standing before the Republican Party fundraising dinner in Tampa, Rubio voiced no regrets about the fact that he is fighting for a new term in the Senate, a place that has provided his largest platform even as it proves to be one of his greatest frustrations.
"I'm very happy that I made the decision that I made," he said.
It's the opposite of the situation that Rubio found himself in six years ago. Then, he was running against the wishes of the Senate GOP leadership, which preferred then-Gov. Charlie Crist for the nomination. And instead of scrambling to get into the race, Rubio has recalled considering an exit, perhaps to run for attorney general, after Crist entered the Senate primary.
"Had the Republican Party chairman or Crist himself reached out to me personally in the spring of 2009, they could probably have persuaded me not to run," Rubio wrote in "An American Son," a memoir published in 2012. "I'm not proud of it now, but I think if they had acknowledged my concern that the party had strayed too far from our conservative principles, I would have walked away from the Senate race. I was looking for a face-saving way out."
But a reporter following Rubio on the campaign trail received a phone call one day about calls being made on Rubio's behalf to gauge support for a run for attorney general. Believing he was being jammed by the Crist campaign, Rubio doubled down on running for the Senate. He would end up winning the seat by a relatively comfortable margin.
It isn't Rubio's commitment to running that is now the question, but his commitment to serving a full, six-year term should he win. Rubio has tried over and over again to tamp down the speculation, while his critics note that he also tried over and over again to extinguish talk of running for re-election this year.
In a recent debate with Murphy, Rubio went as far as he has, but still seemed to use a divine caveat to give himself an opening.
"I'm going to be a senator for the next six years on behalf of the state of Florida," he said under persistent questioning from ABC's Jonathan Karl. "Now, you can't be a senator and president at the same time. So I am running for the United States Senate. I'm going to serve six years, God willing."
That hasn't stopped Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy, Rubio's opponent for the Senate seat, from hammering the incumbent for failing to sign a pledge to serve all six years. The reason that Rubio might reconsider his pledge would be the same reason he now seems to be in a neck-and-neck race with Murphy: Trump's flailing campaign.
Rubio has tried to distance himself from his preferred presidential candidate as much as he can, knocking Trump's more outlandish statements and openly breaking from the businessman on whether leaked Democratic emails are fair game and whether there's a chance that the presidential election will be rigged in favor of Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In fact, Rubio has promised to serve as much as a check on a potential President Trump as on President Clinton if he were elected.
"I don't trust either one of them, and the job of a U.S. senator is not to blindly follow the president because they happen to be from your own party," Rubio said during the debate.
But that has only opened Rubio up to lacerating attacks from Democrats like Obama, who used the senator's attempt to have it both ways as a cudgel during an appearance in Florida.
"Even Marco Rubio says there's no rigging of the vote, which I'd like to give him credit for, except he's refuting the dangerous, unprecedented claim of a candidate he says he's still going to vote for," Obama said.
There is another theory among some Republicans, that Rubio and Trump could actually help each other despite their differences. During the Florida presidential primary, Trump won 66 of the state's 67 counties --- and Rubio won the other, his home county of Miami-Dade.
"Ultimately, I think there are voters that Donald Trump is bringing to the table that wouldn't necessarily have come out if it wasn't for Trump that will benefit Rubio and vice versa," said Joe Gruters, co-chairman of Trump's campaign in Florida. "In Miami-Dade, Southeast Florida, I think Rubio's going to do better and help the Trump team overall."
And while Rubio dodges talk of another presidential bid in 2020 or 2024, some of his supporters are certain he will take another shot at the Oval Office. Particularly if Trump fails, he could once again be seen as the remedy for a party whose demographic problems are only going to get worse as the country continues to grow more diverse.
"He connects with young voters like I've never seen any Republican ever do," said Rick Lacey, vice chairman of the Brevard County GOP, who voted for Rubio in the presidential primary. "He connects with Latino voters better than any Republican I've ever seen."
Others urge caution. Including a man who looked at Rubio years ago and saw a state representative looking to take the next step and saw even bigger things in the future.
"Everybody wants to get ahead when it comes to Marco because they see so much potential. ... Just leave him alone," Arza said. "Let him be a U.S. senator."
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