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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
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Jackson: Marco Rubio’s beguiling outreach

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NEW PORT RICHEY -

The bloom may be off the Marco Rubio rose just now, given his leadership on an immigration package so thoroughly bristling with warts only Chuck Schumer could love it. But give the man his due.

Even when he’s being pilloried by some of his dearest supporters and lanced on the covers of leading conservative magazines that once hailed his arrival, Rubio retains the politician’s indispensable gift.

Fighting uphill while shouldering a boulder Sisyphus himself wouldn’t attempt, there it is, in the palm of his hand. The room.

We have known since we discovered him one late June night five years ago that Rubio can rouse the likeminded. For those seeking the bracing combination of free markets, entrepreneurial spirit, personal responsibility, upward mobility and a restrained federal government — in short, the Reagan years, as fondly (if selectively) remembered — Rubio is your political barista, serving up Gipper lattes Venti-style, with triple shots of espresso.

What we discovered Tuesday night in Spartan Manor’s packed banquet hall, is something that will bear watching as the Rubio narrative ticks toward that inevitable bright South Florida morning in two years, or six, or 10, when he declares his intention to seek the highest office in the land.

At just 41, 28 months into his first term in the U.S. Senate, Rubio the precocious has learned how to expand his audience without losing its core, an essential skill for the deeply ambitious.

Our epiphany followed Rubio’s expected nods to the conservative manifesto, wrapped in a fitting homage to the Founders, whose vision of a new nation relied on the Creator’s divine spark within each of us. It came not long after he said, “And now I’m going to talk about immigration, because I must.”

A crowd that was raucous, almost giddy in the presence of this bilingual Reagan had fallen into an engaged silence. His credentials satisfactorily reestablished, his GOP kin would hear him out.

But remember what we said about expanding audiences.

No one would mistake the serving staff at a Reagan dinner for a Republican core constituency. But as Rubio laid out the essentials of the Gang of Eight plan, the servers paid attention. Did they like what they heard? When the door to the kitchen swung open and someone made a racket, she was shushed … by people inside the kitchen.

More? Photographers on the stage apron, popping flashes during the boilerplate portion, idled their equipment. That almost never happens.

As to the package itself, the problem, critics say, is that to keep his audiences nodding, Rubio must fudge the nitty-gritty. On enforcement. On timelines. On assimilation triggers. On federal outlays to the immediately legalized.

All that may be, concedes Pasco GOP chief Randy Maggard, the Dade City businessman, but if they are to avoid entering the next national election season spotting Democrats 30 points on certain non-core issues, Republicans must been seen to have done something about immigration. On that note, says Maggard, of all the somethings knocking around out there, Rubio’s something is the best something he’s heard.

Alas, this sort of strategic thinking runs perilously close the Politician’s Syllogism, a phenomenon identified by the BBC’s Thatcher-era sitcom, “Yes, Prime Minister”: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it.

OK, whatever. Most inside the hall Tuesday simply want to know when the bandwagon is pulling out. As Maggard said, “Last November took a lot out of us. We’d never worked so hard. After tonight, I’m ready to get back in the fight.”

Added Zephyrhills’ 26-year-old mayor Danny Burgess, a shining GOP star in his own right, “Do I think we were in the presence of someone who could be President not too long from now? Yes. I do believe that.”

So, what about that future?

In their traditional “free-speech zone” across Massachusetts Avenue, the usual cast of demonstrators — inclined to stand with Rubio on immigration but otherwise opposed to him — claimed one small victory even before the festivities began. Rubio entered by the service door, ducking — apparently — their multi-faceted (from pacificism to health care to legalized marijuana to generalized unrest) protests.

“We’ve been doing the Ronnie Ray-Gun dinner — that’s right, Ronnie Ray-Gun — for seven years,” says veteran dissenter Clay Colson, “and Rubio’s the first speaker to go through the back door. I think that says a lot about him. He’s the first one to do it, and I wonder why.”

We are reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s observation regarding all the people, all the time. Then again, perhaps Colson & Co. simply haven’t been in the room with Marco Rubio, to be cradled by that remarkable palm.


tjackson@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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