Amid the uncertainty marking the 2012 race for the White House, Republican strategists and campaign aides agree on this: Marco Rubio is on every short list as a running mate for the party’s main presidential contenders.
So revelations this week that Rubio, the fresh-faced first-term senator from Florida, botched details of his own biography raised questions about whether his political future might be short-circuited by accusations of having dramatized his life story for political gain.
Party operatives say the flap over Rubio’s erroneous claims that his parents left Cuba following Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover -- when, as he now acknowledges, they left before the dictator took power -- hasn’t dimmed his prospects at all.
“The logic is still the same among most Republican leaders and people who are vying for the nomination,” said Cory Tilley, a Tallahassee, Florida-based Republican strategist. “If they’re serious about winning the White House, they have to be serious about looking at Marco Rubio as a running mate. It’s a no-brainer for multiple reasons that he should be on everybody’s short, short list.”
Rubio, 40, admitted Oct. 20 getting the details of his parents’ departure from Cuba wrong, telling the St. Petersburg Times and the Washington Post, which both published lengthy stories about the inconsistency, that the mangled dates resulted from his mistaken understanding of decades-old family lore.
He rejected suggestions that he intentionally misstated the dates to ingratiate himself with Florida’s politically powerful Cuban-exile community, a force in Republican circles.
Denies He Embellished
“To suggest my family’s story is embellished for political gain is outrageous,” Rubio said in a statement provided by his office yesterday. “The dates I have given regarding my family’s history have always been based on my parents’ recollections of events that occurred over 55 years ago and which were relayed to me by them more than two decades after they happened.”
Democrats pounced on the story, saying it was evidence that Rubio has a credibility problem.
“The latest bombshell confirms that Rubio seriously struggles to tell the truth and can’t be trusted,” Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said in a statement yesterday.
Rubio is a former Miami-area state legislator who won a three-way Senate race last year by 19 percentage points. He had a job-approval rating of 49 percent among all Florida voters and 52 percent among independents in a survey by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute released Sept. 21, according to Peter Brown, the organization’s assistant director.
“The question is, is this the kind of story that would make a prospective Republican presidential nominee think twice or three times about picking him as a running mate,” Brown said yesterday. “Rubio has a decent chance of being the vice presidential nominee in 2012 because he is young, articulate, conservative and Hispanic, but in the current political environment, this kind of story will give his opponents something to talk about.”
Florida has figured prominently in recent presidential elections, and its 29 electoral votes could prove crucial to determining next year’s winner. Republican George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 after a recount determined he carried Florida by 537 votes -- out of more than 6 million cast. Democrat Barack Obama won Florida by 3 percentage points in 2008, making it one of several swing states that propelled him to the White House.
Republican strategists say Rubio, as a running mate, could help the party’s presidential nominee carry Florida while also aiding the ticket in southwestern states with large Hispanic populations that Obama won in his last race: Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, which have a total of 20 electoral votes.
Rubio has insisted he has no interest in being on the 2012 ticket. At a forum in Washington on Oct. 5 he said, “I am not going to be the vice presidential nominee,” and repeated the phrase for emphasis. He added that if a Republican presidential candidate were to ask, “the answer is gonna be no.”
For now, said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of Florida’s Republican Party, Cuban Americans have rallied around Rubio over the flap. Cardenas rejected the notion that there had been any political advantage for Rubio in claiming to be the son of post-revolution exiles rather than parents who left Cuba before Castro’s rise.
“The reaction so far has been overwhelmingly in defense of Marco,” Cardenas said. “All of us have been very proud of him for talking about our exile community and its travails and challenges and successes. Regardless of who you’re a refugee of, the fact of the matter is Cuba had a lot of uncertainty in the ’50s and the ‘60s.”
Rubio was born in Miami in 1971. His Senate website says his parents “came to American following Fidel Castro’s takeover,” and he has frequently described himself as the “son of exiles” who fled after the dictator assumed power.
This week’s newspaper stories reported that documents show Rubio’s parents first came to the U.S. in 1956, when dictator Fulgencio Batista was ruling the island nation.
While Rubio acknowledged the error, he argued in his statement that his parents were “exiled” nonetheless because, when family members returned to Cuba intending to stay after Batista had been overthrown, they quickly realized “the direction Castro was taking Cuba” and left for good.
“They were exiled from the home country they tried to return to because they did not want to live under communism,” Rubio said.
Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist whose family fled Castro’s Cuba in 1961, said he considers Rubio’s story as much a part of the exile experience as his own.
“When Castro took over, you became part of something larger, part of a lost tribe, part of a community that couldn’t go back,” Castellanos said.
Of Rubio’s running-mate prospects, Castellanos said: “He certainly is, I think, a strong contender, and remains so.”