Known by some as the "Crown Prince of the Tea Party," for his baby-faced good looks and ultraconservatism on issues ranging from immigration to tax cuts, Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, announced on Monday that he's running for president.
While there's a long time between now and 2016, it's worthwhile to consider the candidate--and what, if at all, kind of friend he'd be to small businesses and entrepreneurs.
To be sure, Rubio, the son of Cuban parents who immigrated to the U.S. during the Eisenhower era, has a tough slog ahead of him. With the exception of Texas senator Ted Cruz, who announced his candidacy at the end of March, the slate of Republican candidates is likely to be occupied with older, more experienced candidates who have taken definitive stands on key issues that matter to conservatives and conservative business owners, as well as offering their own imprimaturs on policy.
By contrast, Rubio, who is 44, has often appeared to waffle on key policy matters. Plus, he lacks experience outside the Beltway and the Florida statehouse, which could hurt his ability to connect with the business community.
"Rubio's qualifications don't necessarily stand up to those of some of his colleagues," says John Hudak, a fellow in government studies at Brookings Institution, the public policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
For example, Rand Paul, 52, the junior senator from Kentucky, is trained as an ophthalmologist. He spent more than a decade in private practice before venturing into politics, following in the footsteps of his father Ron Paul, the former U.S. congressman from Texas and one-time presidential nominee. He's also staked out some controversial positions on reforming criminal justice and legalizing marijuana.
Similarly, Jeb Bush, 62, who also has yet to announce his candidacy, can tap his family's political dynasty and business connections. He has been a successful entrepreneur in education, health care, and finance.
And though Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, at 47, isn't much older than Rubio, he has successfully staked out conservative issues, such as taking on unions, cutting state taxes, and gutting the state budget. (Walker has not yet announced a presidential run, but currently polls as a Republican favorite.)
Then there's Cruz, who's the same age as Rubio, and who has made a name for himself by staking out extremist and, to some, crazy-sounding ideas, such as abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Reserve Bank.
By contrast, Rubio has been a political man, but with a modest record for nearly his entire life, experts say. A city commissioner for West Miami, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2000 and became speaker of the House in 2006. In 2009, he won a long-odds race against former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who had a 70 percent approval rating at the time, to become U.S. senator, more by luck than through political skills, analysts say.
Rubio earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Florida and law degree from the University of Miami in the 1990s. He began his political career while in law school, becoming a political coordinator for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign in Dade County.
On issues that are key to business and the economy, such as immigration reform, Rubio initially showed a keen ear to compromise, and in 2012 seemed to push for comprehensive immigration reform in a way that would appeal to many Republicans and Democrats, and which showed an understanding of how fixing immigration could help spur economic growth and innovation. Following significant pushback from conservatives, however, he has since nudged his views on immigration to the right of center.
"He was part of the bipartisan compromise that Senator [Charles] Schumer crafted, and that passed in the Senate in 2013," says Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy and co-founder of Third Way, a centrist policy think tank in Washington, D.C. "Since then, he has retreated from his own positions."
And on other issues that matter to conservatives, such as bigger tax cuts, decreasing the size of the federal budget, and rolling back programs like Medicare and Social Security, Rubio toes the Republican party line, experts say.
In the last year, for example, he voted in sync with other Republican senators to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a measure favored by conservatives and many business owners that was vetoed by the President in March. He has also recently voted against funding national infrastructure projects, the federal minimum wage increase, increases to the federal debt limit, and emergency assistance to students that would allow them to refinance student loan debt, all of which speak to his conservative bona fides.
While walking in lockstep with his party is going to make it that much harder for him to stand out from other candidates, he also shouldn't be written off entirely, says Bill Whalen, a research fellow specializing in California and national politics at the Hoover Institution. Of the potential top tier candidates, Bush and Walker aren't necessarily that strong either, Whalen says, because Bush doesn't register as conservative enough with his base, and Walker lacks national experience.
If either one fails to catch fire with voters, "it's not a bad thing to be in second tier," Whalen says, adding that a 44-year-old senator facing the 69-year-old Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton might look very much like McCain vs. Obama in 2008.
And if it's not 2016, there's always 2024, when he won't be junior any more, experts say.
"Rubio won't be that formidable in 2016, but in 2024 I bet he is," says Hudak. "And he is going to learn a lot from this run."