Can Rubio Take the Heat?

After weeks of telling us outright that it was going to happen, Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio formally announced his intention to run for president yesterday. The event took place at Freedom Tower, playing a part in the  Cuban immigration narrative he presented, where he focused on his family’s own immigrant roots and strong work ethic.

“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,” he proudly proclaimed.

The speech was arguably good in terms of delivery, and with the similarities in play, it’s no real surprise that he’s come to be touted as the “Obama of the Right.” His announcement drew a lot from former Obama speeches, actually. But it’s a characterization he pushes back against… hard. As he told the Today Show:

Well, there’s a difference between Barack Obama and I, and I think our histories are much different. I’ve served in local government, [I] served in state government for nine years in the third-largest state in the country, I was the speaker of the Florida House — all that before I even got to Washington four and a half years ago.

He’s sort of right. Technically, he served in the Florida House for two years longer than Obama served in the Illinois Senate, and Obama did not have the same leadership role. He’s been in his current role as Senator for a couple years longer than Obama served before running, as well.

There are some other differences, too. Obama’s Columbia and Harvard degrees are a tad more impressive than Rubio’s University of Florida and University of Miami accolades. Obama worked as a community organizer and law professor over a span of nine years before being elected to the Illinois Senate in ’96, compared to Rubio’s… zero years of experience outside of politics.

I feel you, Rubio. The Obama comparisons aren’t exactly great.

That said, there are certainly similarities that could be a boost to GOP odds in the general election. Rubio, like Obama in 2008, has the benefit of being the youngest likely contender in the field, and he looks the part. He’s arguably one of the best public speakers among the GOP contenders, with a somewhat similar, measured delivery style. One could argue that, despite a couple years of difference as an elected official, both he and Obama were relatively inexperienced when they started their campaigns.

Of greatest benefit, though, is the lack of baggage. As Buzzfeed recently pointed out, Rubio’s past has been thoroughly scoured. Despite aggressive media coverage in Florida and nationally, and the vetting process when he was a potential running mate for Romney, no skeletons have surfaced. Just as was the case with Obama, no matter how much the opposition tries, they can’t seem to find a blow that lands.

But frankly, that’s where the comparisons (and benefits) run dry.

Rubio’s not a bad speaker, but as he demonstrated in his announcement yesterday, he’s not a great one, either. In fact, he sort of seemed like he was trying too hard to mimic Obama’s delivery. He hit the serious notes well, but unlike Obama, there wasn’t much variety in his cadence or volume — an element to Obama’s style that’s hard to beat. He seems aware that his youth could prove a double edged sword, but wound up swinging hard to the side of gravitas with a severity that seemed unnatural and uncomfortable. The man didn’t smile until the end of the speech. Not exactly the “youthful” image that could bolster him if harnessed properly.

And trying to be Obama — or at least, phoning in a performance that will gain him those comparisons — can really only hurt him with the base. Even if his policies are dramatically different from those supported by Obama, those insinuations from press and opponents can add up during the primaries if he doesn’t come up with a better rejoinder, if only due to the vitriol that’s been stirred up by the GOP against Obama over the the past 7 years. Even the less hyperbolic lines of criticism — age, experience, etc. — are likely to resonate with the base. Those Obama comparisons are frankly the last thing he wants.

All that said, the truth of the matter is that the primary (and potentially, the general election) debates will probably make or break Rubio. When he’s on script, he can at least give an Obama impression. When he’s off-script, he’s not quite as articulate. When he’s nervous, he’s got a habit of looking a little foolish (remember the water bottle?). And even when he’s not nervous, his ego can get in the way. In a recent Senate hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry, Rubio got taken to task on his understanding of Middle Eastern politics and its interaction with military policy in the U.S., demonstrating an incredibly shallow grasp of the dynamics in play while repeating the same point over and over again after it had already been answered. It was ugly.

To be fair, very few of the current and would-be GOP contenders have a great amount of experience in foreign relations. Paul and Cruz are still relatively green and arguably naively isolationist. Graham and Santorum have more years under their belt, but their bluster (not to mention social rhetoric) are likely to get in the way. Bush, Walker, and Perry have little experience with it as governors. Carson’s an outsider without a lick of experience in governance… period. But, should Rubio get flustered or give a performance similar to the Kerry face off in the primary debates, he may give an impression of incompetence that cripples him with primary voters. He’s got to get better at projecting strength to capture the base.

Against the Democrats, Clinton and likely candidate Biden can give Rubio the greatest challenge on depth and breadth of experience. Both are strong enough debaters that Rubio’s ignorance could be exploited substantially. His lack of baggage — which both Clinton and Biden have in spades — will help, but can only take him so far, especially given his policy-centric campaign approach.

The bottom line? Rubio’s no Obama, but he’s still got a shot. I may have some significant qualms about his platform personally, but with a solid debate coach (and a helluva a lot of homework on the nuances of some important issues), he may just be able to cinch the nomination, at the very least.

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