Rubio inspires, yet experience question lingers

Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio speaks to a crowd of people attending a fundraiser for Iowa House Representative Chris Hagenow on Tuesday at the Windsor Heights Community Center in Windsor Heights, Iowa.

URBANDALE, Iowa — Marco Rubio is campaigning for president on the promise of a better future and on his powerful personal story about the American Dream.

As he treks across Iowa this week, however, he often leaves unmentioned a record of accomplishment that is thin next to that of some rivals, thanks to his youth if nothing else. Opponents compare him to another rookie senator who sought the White House: Barack Obama.

“These are major differences between me and the person who’s there now, and I hope you’ll see that in the weeks and months ahead,” Rubio, 44, told an Iowa voter Wednesday who raised the comparison.

Yet as Iowa’s February caucuses approach, a clearer picture is emerging of the rationale behind a Rubio candidacy that draws heavily from Obama’s playbook. The Republican senator’s principal appeal to voters relies not on his governing experience or proven accomplishment, but on the less tangible markers of leadership and ability to inspire.

“Our president has to be an inspirational figure, has to be someone that can call us to a greater cause, rally us together as a nation,” Rubio said at a Des Moines-area restaurant.

Experience matters, Iowa voters say, and national polls suggest. Particularly in a 2016 Republican contest with more than a dozen candidates with tangible accomplishments to run on.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, transformed his state labor laws while enacting deep tax cuts. Jeb Bush aggressively cut spending while overhauling Florida’s education system as governor.

“Relative to our current president, Rubio has plenty of experience,” said Mary Kramer, a former ambassador to the eastern Caribbean who attended a Rubio event Wednesday. “Relative to some other people in the Republican field, not so much.” She favors Bush.

Indeed, Rubio has no executive experience. An attorney by trade, he was elected to the Florida Statehouse in 2000 and became a U.S. senator in 2011.

In response to a request from The Associated Press, he released a list of his legislative accomplishments. The list may highlight his challenge.

The freshman senator has been the lead sponsor of just one bill that became law in the last four and a half years. The law, crafted with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D, N.H., establishes birth registries in developing countries to support the rights of women and girls.

Rubio’s campaign says he has also “been key” on two other laws, one that imposed new sanctions on Venezuela for human rights abuses in December, and another in 2014 that overhauled the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s unclear what Rubio did in the VA bill, however. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Democrat who chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, did much of the heavy lifting along with two Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida.

He was an architect of an immigration proposal that would have created a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and brought other sweeping changes to the immigration system, but was blocked by his own party. It’s not something he highlights now.

His team calls him a “key co-sponsor” on 16 additional pieces of legislation, a varied list that addresses sex trafficking, the U.S.-Israel partnership, a stamp to raise money for breast cancer research, regulation of pilots, and more. In many of those cases, Rubio was among dozens of Senate co-sponsors.

If he is proud of his accomplishments on Capitol Hill, there is little sign of it as he campaigns. He typically spends just a minute or two talking about more than a decade in elected office and often avoids his experience in Congress altogether.

But the voter who raised similarities to Obama left him no choice but to talk about it.

Rubio called Obama “a backbencher” in Illinois’ minority party who often avoided tough votes. “I was the speaker of the Florida House,” Rubio said. “I led that institution both legislatively and administratively. I ran it.”

Rubio also pointed out Obama had served just two years in the Senate when he launched his presidential campaign. Rubio will be coming up on a full six-year term by Election Day next year.

His age and youthful appearance present challenges as well as opportunity. He’s the second youngest in the race, besides Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and voters often remark how young the boy-faced senator looks when they meet him.

Rubio has some fun with that perception. “I’m 44 years old,” he told Iowans. “I feel 45.”

Iowa state Sen. Jack Whitver, chairman of Rubio’s Iowa campaign, says charisma is important because “you need someone that’s going to inspire the country if you want to accomplish anything.”

Jeremy Danilson, a 32-year-old Urbandale attorney who hasn’t settled on a GOP favorite, agrees. He said Obama has been “extraordinarily successful” enacting his agenda by drawing on his ability to inspire.

In a Pew poll in March, 50 percent of voters said “experience and a proven record” are more important than “new ideas and a different approach,” favored by 43 percent. Nearly 60 percent of Republicans gave priority to a leader’s record.

That’s how Paula Mayheim, a 65-year-old Republican from Des Moines who attended Rubio’s Urbandale event, seems to feel. She said: “He’s young. He’s exciting. He brings new ideas to the table.” But “I just don’t think he has the experience.”