MANCHESTER, N.H. — The candidate took the stage and railed against Washington’s corrupt culture and dysfunctional government, even though he was a sitting senator. He spoke about his ideas for the future, but didn’t dwell on the fact that his own resume included few legislative accomplishments.
The Granite State crowds couldn’t get enough of the charismatic man with a compelling life story, a boyish face, and an eager smile.
The candidate was Barack Obama, just over eight years ago. The candidate is also Marco Rubio, right now.
Rubio stumped in New Hampshire Tuesday and Wednesday amid newfound attention and rising prospects in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination. He is surging in the polls, thanks to Scott Walker dropping out of the race, Jeb Bush struggling to inspire, and a yearning for a strong alternative to Donald Trump.
But Rubio is facing resistance from some in his party who have made unflattering comparisons to Obama in 2008, another freshman senator criticized for being young and inexperienced — and widely loathed throughout his presidency by the activist Republican base.
Rubio rejects the comparison.
“Barack Obama didn’t fail as president because he was a senator, or because he’d only been in politics for a couple of years,” Rubio said in an interview Wednesday. “He failed because his ideas don’t work. He now has seven years of executive presidential experience, and he’s still a disaster.”
“The most important thing is, do you have a vision for the future and a plan to get us there, and can you inspire and rally the American people to that cause,” he added. “And I feel like our campaign is built on that.”
While not acknowledging the parallels, Rubio and his team are betting that Republicans are underestimating Rubio’s ability to topple the GOP candidate from a storied political family, Bush, just as Obama was underestimated in his ability to upend a dynastic candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton.
Like Obama, Rubio has a message infused with an inspiring life story of overcoming economic barriers and family struggles. Neither fits neatly into any single political box, allowing them to appeal to wide swaths of the electorate with an ill-defined call for change.
Rubio’s stump speeches are almost exclusively forward-looking, as he articulates his policy-heavy plans for developing a more muscular stance on foreign policy, lowering corporate taxes, and overhauling the nation’s approach to vocational schools and higher education. On his New Hampshire swing this week, he barely mentioned his own political history, as a Miami city commissioner, Florida House speaker, and sitting senator.
Bush often talks about his record as Florida governor, while Trump brings up his career as a deal-maker and Carly Fiorina touts her experience in the corporate boardroom. But during a town hall meeting in Dover on Wednesday, it was an audience member who mentioned that Rubio was a former Florida House Speaker, not Rubio.
“It’s not experience, it’s intellect,” said Johnnie Koromilas, who after meeting personally with 15 Republican candidates endorsed Rubio. “He’s got an optimistic outlook for the future —like Ronald Reagan had.”
Rubio arrived in New Hampshire Tuesday night and spent all day Wednesday traveling to a trio of town hall meetings. It was only Rubio’s fifth visit to the state since he announced his campaign in April, but he’s clearly getting a second look.
He cracks jokes (“I love this weather. It doesn’t make you sweat,” he said, referencing Trump’s disparaging comments about Rubio’s perspiration at a debate. “Get it?”). He lingers and talks to voters — staying until the sun went down at a house party on Tuesday to take selfies with all comers.
He often brings up his parents as an inspirational life story that he says is unique to America, that the son of parents who emigrated from Cuba can now run for president.
“Just because my dad was a bartender and my mom was a maid didn’t mean that I couldn’t have the same dreams and the same future as the children of presidents and millionaires,” Rubio said. “Because I lived in the one place on earth where that was possible.”
Despite his status as an incumbent senator, Rubio is attempting to tap into a vein of discontent with Washington — pursuing the same disaffected voters who are drawn to candidates like Trump and Fiorina.
“We are stuck with politicians who are stuck in the past,” he says.
But Rubio may also have distanced himself from Washington too much. He has been dogged in recent days by questions over missed Senate votes.
He has missed almost 30 percent of the votes taken this year. Over the course of his nearly five-year Senate career, he has missed 11 percent, according to GovTrack, giving him the worst career absentee record among current senators, including two other presidential hopefuls, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
It’s becoming an issue on the campaign trail, with several New Hampshire voters saying they were bothered by it. And Bush has started suggesting that if senators don’t fulfill their responsibilities in Washington, their pay should be docked.
Rubio, appearing exasperated by the issue, told reporters that he had a more important job to do than listening to Senate debates and voting on legislation: run for president.
“When I miss a vote or time in Washington, it’s not because I’m on vacation,” he said. “It’s because I’m running for president. . . . In my 4½ years there I’ve been deeply frustrated at the lack of progress on any major issue.”
A review of his legislation reveals that only one bill in which Rubio was the chief sponsor has been signed by the president: The Girls Count Act of 2015, which aims to help parents in developing countries register and obtain birth certificates for newborn daughters.
Of the 270 pieces of legislation that Rubio was the chief sponsor of, only 15 were agreed to in the Senate and most of those were not exactly sweeping in nature.
Every year he files a bill to designate September as “National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month,” and it passes with no debate. He has twice sponsored resolutions congratulating the Miami Heat on winning the NBA championship, and this year a resolution recognizing the “importance and inspiration of the Hubble Space Telescope.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.