WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is pinning his presidential hopes on the prospect that Republican voters will have the troubled world on their minds in the 2016 primaries — and that they’ll see a 43-year-old freshman lawmaker who argues for an aggressive U.S. posture abroad as the best candidate to take on global crises.
For Rubio, who remains unknown to many Americans, it’s a gamble of necessity as he searches for a way to break through the GOP pack.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Rubio said tumult in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America may drive voter interest in foreign policy higher than at any point in the last decade, despite the fact that international issues barely registered for voters in the last Republican primary and general election. He also previewed a campaign message that links U.S. economic prosperity to stability around the world.
“We’re 4 to 5 percent of the world’s population,” Rubio said. “So for us to grow our economy robustly and provide more economic opportunity to more people, we need to have millions of people around the world that can afford to trade with us, that can afford to buy our products and our services.”
Foreign policy often isn’t a winning formula in presidential politics, however.
Even in the 2008 election, when worries about terrorism and weariness with the long, expensive and deadly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were elevated in people’s minds, the economy was by far the biggest concern of voters surveyed in exit polls, cited by 63 percent as their main issue.
But William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential campaigns, said current crises, combined with improvements in the economy, could make Rubio’s bet on foreign policy a wise one.
“Changes in the world over the past year or two have been pretty alarming,” Galston said. “There isn’t much that’s gone right for the United States but there are a fair number that have gone wrong.”
If voters do care about foreign policy, though, there’s a risk for Rubio that they may not consider him seasoned enough. President Barack Obama faced that criticism in his primary and presidential campaigns as he sought the White House in his 40s while serving his first term in the Senate.
Whoever wins the GOP nomination may face Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served four years as secretary of state and has no serious rivals for the Democratic nomination as yet, if she runs as expected.
Rubio is expected to announce his presidential campaign within weeks.
He was elected to Congress as part of the 2010 tea party wave and was a darling of conservatives who wield significant influence in Republican primaries. But he angered some of his supporters by helping to negotiate a bipartisan immigration bill that included a pathway to citizenship for millions of people already living in the U.S. illegally.
A member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio became a frequent critic of Obama’s foreign policy and staked out hawkish positions on the Islamic State group, on Iran and on combating Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Rubio was among 47 Republican senators who signed a letter to Iran’s leadership warning that Congress could upend a deal being worked out with Obama to control Tehran’s nuclear program. Rubio has also said that if elected president, he would be willing to defy European allies if necessary to revoke a deal he might inherit.
A Cuban-American whose parents left the island before Fidel Castro took power, Rubio has assailed Obama’s resumption of diplomatic relations with the communist nation after a half-century freeze. And he’s become one of Capitol Hill’s leading voices accusing Venezuela’s government of human rights abuses and a brutal crackdown on political opponents.
Dan Senor, a top national security official in the George W. Bush administration, said Rubio displays an interest in foreign policy that his rivals appear to lack.
“Of the top tier candidates, Rubio is pretty much in a league of his own in terms of his level of discourse and his depth of knowledge on foreign policy and national security,” said Senor, who has consulted with Rubio but so far not endorsed a 2016 candidate.
Over meetings in his Senate office and dinners in Washington and elsewhere, Rubio has been speaking with a wide range of Republican foreign policy experts. Among them: former Bush and Reagan adviser Elliott Abrams, historian Robert Kagan and Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Finland.