That concern was likely a chief reason why Rubio, the former Florida House Speaker who commands a healthy lead against Crist in recent polls, was largely invisible to members of the media during the South Carolina swing, which took the pair to Charleston, Columbia and Greenville.
According to people in the rooms during Monday’s three closed-door receptions, Rubio was welcomed with standing ovations and delivered remarks about his parents’ emigration from Cuba, his love of country and his commitment to conservative ideals.
Randy Page, the president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, said Rubio was “mobbed” after his appearance in Columbia. “Everyone was very pumped and excited,” he said.
But before and after the events, Rubio slipped away and left DeMint to do the talking when reporters appeared.
“All the new young faces in the party get vetted out for a presidential race earlier than they should and probably not to their liking,” said former South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson. “I am sure that Marco Rubio is just looking to win a Senate race.”
An agreeable Rubio did chat briefly Monday with a CNN reporter, but only when he was met emerging from an elevator with his suitcase at his Charleston hotel. He answered questions about a weekend news report that revealed extravagant spending by two of his political committees. He also spoke warmly of DeMint.
“This has been fun and great reception,” Rubio said of his South Carolina jaunt. “I am just grateful to Senator DeMint that he would just introduce me to his friends here and help me raise some money.”
For most of the day, though, it was DeMint who was the face of the “Conservative Comeback.” Asked about Rubio’s low profile in the Palmetto State, DeMint quipped, “He spared me [from reporters] when I was in Florida, and I said I would spare him when he was here.”
DeMint, who endorsed Rubio early in the Senate race when he was a long shot against Crist, did his part to play down the hype surrounding the trip. He said it’s not unusual for candidates to receive help from benefactors in other states, noting that he traveled to Kentucky and Texas to raise money during his first campaign for Senate in 2004.
The Crist campaign, not satisfied with that explanation, once again accused Rubio of “gallivanting around a presidential primary state.” After trashing Rubio’s record on spending, Crist spokeswoman Andrea Saul told CNN that Rubio “clearly thinks he will be anointed in this primary so he is already eyeing Pennsylvania Avenue. ”
DeMint, who is up for re-election in November, made clear that Rubio wasn’t the only benefiting from the trip: the two Republicans had established a joint fundraising committee for their effort. DeMint’s campaign manager Ian Headley said the tour was expected to raise over $100,000, money that will be divvied up between each campaign.
“This just creates a little critical mass to have one senator and one prospect traveling the state,” DeMint said of the tag-team effort, adding that he hopes to bring other candidates he supports to South Carolina. “It’s a little more interesting than just an incumbent going around the state.”
But DeMint did say the visit was about more than just money.
“We’re making a point, and our message is the same,” he said, outlining he and Rubio’s shared vision for smaller government. “If we can get Marco Rubio in Washington, he will help us re-shape the Republican Party first, and that will help us re-earn the trust of the American people.”
Ultimately, Rubio’s target audience Monday was not the media, nor was it the voters of Florida. He was raising money, and by most accounts the donors liked what they saw.
Republican National Committee member Cindy Costa attended the fundraiser in Charleston. She said she was at first taken aback at how young the 38-year-old Rubio looked in person. But Costa said she was immediately impressed.
“He is very refreshing,” she told CNN. “It’s wonderful to have new faces on the national scene. It’s wonderful to have somebody that’s fresh, that’s new, that’s got good sound ideas and knows how to cut back on spending.” Full story here.