One trip to Iowa does not a candidacy make, but you don’t have to be a political junkie to interpret Marco Rubio’s star turn at a birthday party fundraiser for the state’s governor as the first shot fired in the race for the 2016 presidential race. As Politico reported over the weekend, the Florida senator’s appearance at Governor Terry Branstad’s shindig set off speculation about his intentions.
With three years and two months to go before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, all this talk about 2016 may seem incredibly premature. But in a state where you can never spend too much time buttering up the voters, Rubio has sent a clear signal that he isn’t shy about starting early to win their approval. Just as important, his speech reminded Republicans that what they need is not just a Hispanic but also someone who can appeal to middle class sensibilities in a way that Mitt Romney failed to do. Which means we can expect to hear a lot more about Rubio’s bartender father and his hotel maid mother than we ever did about George and Lenore Romney.
The nation’s political landscape may be very different two years from now after the next midterm elections. By then, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have gotten a major boost from a 2013 re-election victory or have had his ambitions cut short by Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Paul Ryan may have burnished his reputation further by years of budget showdowns with President Obama or gotten bogged down in the fallout from those confrontations. Other potential candidates, such as Bobby Jindal, may have emerged as party favorites. Conservative Christians may have united behind recycled candidates like Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, and enough time may have passed since 2008 for Jeb Bush to consider following in his father and brother’s footsteps.
All those potential nominees and many others will be schlepping to Iowa in the next couple of years. But by making himself conspicuous in Iowa this soon after the 2012 race, Rubio is showing that the diffidence he often expressed about the possibility of being nominated for vice president this past year shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of interest in the top spot on the next GOP ticket. It’s also a sign that Rubio intends to go big if he does run, since his speech showed that he wants to position himself as a Tea Party stalwart, an advocate of conservative family values, and a supporter of a robust national defense and foreign policy, as well as staking out ground with Hispanics and the middle class.
One speech doesn’t commit Rubio, and this also gives him plenty of time to make the sort of mistakes that could sink his hopes before they even get started. But it does serve notice to his potential rivals that he is probably interested and that they should think twice about underestimating him.