Fighting to revive his political prospects, Sen. Marco Rubio is returning to the presidential campaign circuit and beefing up a political organization that could lay the groundwork for a White House bid.
In the clearest sign yet of his interest in a presidential run, the Florida Republican plans to visit New Hampshire on Friday, his first appearance in an early-voting state in more than a year. He is set to headline a pair of fundraisers in Republican-rich counties and meet with local officials, efforts that will grant him an audience with activists and donors in the home of the nation’s first presidential primary.
At the same time, he has reshuffled his staff and directed his political resources to three key Senate races this year, including a GOP primary in Iowa. The first voting of the presidential primary season occurs in the Iowa caucuses.
Taken together, Rubio’s actions are part of an effort to strengthen his standing in a potentially crowded 2016 presidential field after a year in which he saw his popularity slip over his backing of an immigration overhaul.
The renewed push also comes as the GOP establishment turns its attention to the freshman senator’s onetime mentor, Jeb Bush. Many party insiders and major donors are signaling their preference for the former Florida governor, which could threaten a potential Rubio candidacy.
Neither man has publicly declared his intentions for 2016, but Rubio had proved a prolific fundraiser, tapping his donor-rich home state and the political networks of the past three GOP presidential nominees. Last year, he raised about $8.3 million — more than Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky or Ted Cruz of Texas, both tea party stars who are also weighing White House bids.
For now, Rubio’s advisers say his political focus remains on helping Republicans retake the Senate in November. Last month, he moved Cesar Conda, his chief of staff and a longtime GOP insider who once worked for Vice President Dick Cheney, to his Reclaim America political action committee. The group is backing candidates in Arkansas, Colorado and Iowa — efforts that aides acknowledge could buoy a presidential campaign should Rubio run.
In Washington, Rubio has muscled his way to the forefront of major domestic and foreign policy debates, becoming a leading Republican voice for more robust action in geopolitical hot spots from Venezuela to Russia to China. Next week, he will detail his ideas to bolster retirement security and overhaul entitlement programs.
“By every measure, those who are struggling to get ahead are worse off than they were four years ago,” Rubio told The Associated Press in an interview. “I think both parties are guilty of continuing to debate how we can fix these broken 20th century institutions instead of having a debate about how we create new institutions for the 21st century.”
It’s a theme he’ll likely sound in New Hampshire, where he faces a wide-open contest on largely friendly ground.
His support for last year’s immigration legislation is unlikely to hurt him among the state’s primary voters, a group considered more moderate than those who decide early contests in Iowa and South Carolina.
New Hampshire Republican National Committee member Steve Duprey was among five former state GOP chairmen to sign a letter last year endorsing the Rubio-backed immigration overhaul. The state’s lone GOP senator, Kelly Ayotte, was the first Republican outside Rubio’s working group to publicly support the plan.
“He’s sort of a victim of his own success. He was considered this hotshot rising star. Then a couple of issues like immigration haven’t gone very far, so some people think his stock is falling,” Duprey said of Rubio. “To me, he comes across as a serious and thoughtful, mainstream conservative.”
Indeed, Rubio is the first in the group of the so-called mainstream Republican class to appear in New Hampshire this year. Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister, and tea party favorites Paul and Cruz have visited several times.
Other New Hampshire Republicans report some skepticism about Rubio, whom they describe as a relatively inexperienced leader who has failed to impress in key moments.