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Rubio is viable, in double digits, and not peaking early


Anyone who follows politics with even a challenged attention span can quickly summon from memory banks the basics of the 1960 presidential debates: Nixon sweating; Kennedy charming.

Nixon, as the popular and conventional history goes, did better on the radio.

In the last Republican presidential debate, the one with the candidates queued in front of a decommissioned Air Force One at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Marco Rubio performed well for the television audience. And, for my money, he did even better on the radio, particularly on foreign policy, where he displayed command of specifics, an ease with nuance and a projection of confidence that bore at least passing resemblance the museum’s inspiration, The Great Communicator.

The polls show Rubio in a nice spot now: He’s viable, in double digits, and not peaking early. The Republican assumed to be typecast as the made-to-order vice presidential candidate could very well vault from the understudy spot to the lead. He’s the man to watch right now.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has the GOP nomination race broken down thusly: Donald Trump, 21 percent; Ben Carson, 20 percent; Carly Fiorina, 11 percent; and Rubio, 11 percent.

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Back in December of 2009, Political Mercury wrote this: “If I were a conservative twenty-something political activist, I’d be heading to Palm Beach or Tampa right now and looking for a job with Rubio. Rubio’s got the goods for the national stage, and should he take that U.S. Senate seat, he’ll instantly be in the running as a potential vice presidential running mate for the GOP nominee in 2012.”

We are now in the 2016 cycle.

Yes, the Summer of Trump has led to fall. Trump’s Tweets — those new-day political artillery shells, rained late night from a New York City penthouse — crater Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns because they reinforce narratives, long-held fears and biases. And we understand (in a roll-your-eyes kind of way) Trump’s stuck-in-the-1980s-shots at Carly Fiorina or pretty much any female journalist who asks The Donald any question other than, “Why are you so great?”

But his shots at Rubio? For being too young? (“I think he’s a baby,” Trump has said.) At 44? Nixon became vice president at age 39 — the same age at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Pope Francis didn’t think King was too young to quote him before Congress last week.

“You have this clown, Marco Rubio,” Trump said recently at a gathering of social conservatives in Washington, D.C.

The response: boos.

Rubio is a U.S. senator from Florida, but he’s forever the upstart who knocked off Charlie Crist, a sitting governor seeking to move to D.C., and the embodiment of the GOP establishment (in 2010). So attacking Rubio as having a case of Potomac Fever doesn’t measure up with conservatives who, unlike Trump, have connections and affections for candidates who fought their good fight before 2015.

If Rubio can maintain a spot, just off the leaders but close enough to close, he can barnstorm through Iowa in the winter, presenting himself as the finisher, the surging man of early February. He can keep talking about foreign policy, and more important, keep seriously reading about it, developing a natural faculty with use of the players and regions. (This worked for John Kerry in 2004.)

And Rubio must stay sunny, say and write everything as if he’s talking to a person (think a 64-old-year rural Iowa Republican woman) and not devolve into the snarky, diminished banter of social media. Some politicians get ahead by not accepting the premise of the question. Rubio should take it a step further: Don’t accept the modern medium.

Iowans, regardless of their politics, are generally Sunday church-potluck friendly. Rubio can go to Iowa’s small towns and run ads in the weekly newspapers. He can use those ads to tell us about his mother working at Kmart and as a hotel maid, dad tending bar.

The working-class and Christmas card bona fides are indisputable.

OK, smart guy, you may be thinking. Tell us this: How does Rubio handle the immigration storm clouds as a senator who has supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented? Simple, just say the border is not nearly secure enough at this point, and until that happens, it’s dangerous for national security to discuss further remedies. Then pivot right to a point on ISIS penetrating our borders.

Republicans, in the end, have this choice: They can run angry and lose. Or they can be smart.

Florida’s Rubio as their Obama (youthful energy and ideas and the television bona fides to deliver), and Ohio’s John Kasich (another key state, Congressional experience and an everyman’s touch) in the Joe Biden role check a lot of boxes for the Republicans. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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