Almost six years ago, I received an e-mail from my father encouraging me to go to a small reception for some politician I’d never heard of. As a freshman in college studying politics, I naturally jumped at the chance to 1) get some free food and 2) meet a person whose campaign I might be able to work on. I met Marco Rubio ten days later and was incredibly impressed. He was serious, driven, and had a clear vision of why he wanted to become a Senator. I was also pretty happy to be the same height as the guy. After hearing him lay out his desire to reach solutions on immigration, the economic situation in Florida, and driving conservative values back to the fore of the American political discussion, I was officially a Rubio fan. And despite the fact that it’s been a few years and he’s now running for president, I still see those same qualities in him — but he desperately needs to take them to the ground.
More than 40 percent of Republicans in the POLITICO Caucus were convinced that Rubio won last night’s debate, as the Senator continues to show his ability to shine in debate settings. One member of the caucus from South Carolina said, “Rubio got hit harder in this debate than ever before, and handled all the incoming fire masterfully,” but also observed, “That said, it’s an open question as to whether his answers will fly with the current primary electorate.” This seems to be the general consensus on the GOP hopeful — he handles situations that come up in debates incredibly well and hasn’t suffered any great losses at the hands of his opponents in them. However, he has to do more.
It’s that question of whether his answers will fly with the electorate that Marco Rubio now needs to answer. Thus far his poll numbers have been ‘fine,’ as holding at third place nationally is a solid, respectable position at this stage of the race. To get those poll numbers trending upward, however, and to demonstrate he is a viable alternative to the Obama presidency, the Hillary campaign, and Mr. Trump’s wild ride, Rubio will need to take the campaign from the Vegas debate stage to Iowa living rooms. He needs to do it with events like the one I saw him at in February 2010 — by getting into more conversations with voters, he could organize a stronger ground game in Iowa and New Hampshire and let people know who he is. But the time for that is growing short.
Showing people who he is allows the Senator to put forth a strong response to attacks from opponents. The criticisms on his immigration stance? The reality is that adjusting his position is a lot more acceptable if you believe that Rubio isn’t cut from the same cloth as other politicians. He learned from his mistakes in trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform and has acknowledged the need to do things differently in Washington. He hasn’t shied away from acknowledging that he changed his mind, but that doesn’t mean that he’s a disciple of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama on the issue.
Why do I say all these things in his favor? Because when I look for a president, I look for good policy, sound conservative values, a person that I can relate to, and someone that I can see being a leader. Marco Rubio has the potential to be that guy, but he needs to start convincing people of that away from the safety of a podium.
Kevin Dawson is Deputy Operations Manager for the American Principles Project.