Hoping to turn his relative youth into a benefit, Sen. Marco Rubio entered the presidential race Monday with a promise to move politics beyond the past, a jab at both Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton and his one-time Republican mentor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Rubio is betting voters’ frustrations with Washington will help him defeat two members of America’s political dynasties and capture the White House. The first-generation Cuban-American faces an uphill climb to the GOP nomination in his effort to reshape how the electorate views Republicans as a party.
“This election is not just about what laws we will pass,” he said, in an excerpt of his speech for his Miami kickoff rally early Monday evening. “It is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.”
Rubio, 43, spoke first to his top donors a day after Clinton announced her bid for the Democratic nomination and as she was traveling to Iowa on her first trip as a candidate. Rubio, a first-term Republican from Florida, told his most generous backers that he feels “uniquely qualified” to pitch his party as one that will defend the American Dream.
Rubio said the dream is slipping away for too many families, and young Americans face unequal opportunities to succeed. He’s banking on the hope that he, alone among many GOP rivals, can make inroads with groups that have long eluded Republicans – young people, minorities and the less affluent.
“I feel uniquely qualified to not just make that argument, but to outline the policies that we need to have in order to achieve it,” he said.
Clinton’s entrance into the race with an online video Sunday is robbing some attention from Rubio’s splash into the race. But Rubio saw an opportunity to cast the presidential contest as one between a fresh face representing a new generation of leadership and familiar faces harking back decades – namely, the 62-year-old Bush and the 67-year-old Clinton.
“Too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century,” his speech said pointedly. “The time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American century.”
The swipe at Bush was implied; with Clinton, he was more direct.
“Just yesterday, we heard from a leader from yesterday who wants to take us back to yesterday, but I feel that this country has always been about tomorrow,” he said.
Supporters began lining up in 87-degree heat three hours before the public kickoff at Freedom Tower, the Miami landmark that was the first stop for tens of thousands of fleeing Cuban exiles during the 1960s and 1970s.
Rubio faces steep challenges to the nomination, including a well-funded one that Bush is expected to offer. The son of one president and brother of another, Jeb Bush was governor while Rubio was speaker of the Florida House. The two formed a close bond, but a presidential campaign is certain to test the strength of their friendship.
Rubio is the third major GOP contender to declare himself a candidate, after Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, in a field that could grow to 20 or more.
Rubio could make history as the nation’s first Hispanic president – as could Cruz.