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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rubio Energizes South Carolina Republicans


PALM HARBOR, Fla. â€" Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, strode into a room here filled with bleary-eyed, brightly dressed delegates from South Carolina, and almost immediately asked for coffee.

He did not get it until the end of his speech, but his presence almost instantly energized the breakfast gathering at Innisbrook, a golf resort here. People rushed over to take cellphone pictures, and Mr. Rubio joked about the “breezy” weather the past few days, cracking that he'd met some Northerners who were afraid of 20-mile-per-hour winds.

South Carolinians are familiar with hurricanes, like Hugo in 1989, and Mr. Rubio, a freshman from Florida. He spoke at the South Carolina Republican Party's Silver Elephant Dinner in May, and the tour to promote his autobiography, “An American Son,” swung through there in July. Both trips to the early primary state prompted speculation about his political ambitions, with the latter occurring as he was being vetted by the Romney campaign.

In fact, some delegates said, they know Mr. Rubio better than the man Mitt Romney ultimately chose as his running mate.

“I don't know much about Paul Ryan,” said Phillip Bowers, a delegate from Pickens. But Mr. Rubio is “a little more high profile in the South.”

But by the next competitive Republican presidential primary, whether in 2016 or 2020, South Carolinians will almost certainly know both rising stars well. As Mr. Rubio acknowledged, they're likely to find many similarities.

“We have a lot in common,” Mr. Rubio said. “We're about a year apart. Same generation, similar background in many ways.”

Mr. Rubio, 41, and Mr. Ryan, 42, both had modest upbringings, but their political profiles offer the more striking similarity. Both became mainstream standard-bearers for the Republican Party while maintaining support from the Tea Party movement, and both emphasize the need for the party to offer an alternative, rather than simply attacking the other side. As Mr. Rubio noted, Mr. Ryan was one of the first people in Washington to endorse his Senate bid.

Mr. Rubio, for example, declined a chance to please the crowd on Tuesday morning by fully endorsing a “no budget, no pay” bill that would deny lawmakers' salaries until they pass a budget.

“I wouldn't vote against that bill,” he said, “but I think the better solution is to elect people that are serious” about dealing with the deficit.

He later said that the purpose of nominating Mr. Ryan was to “elevate this debate to be about issues instead of just personalities.”

Mr. Rubio and Mr. Ryan have at least until 2016, if not 2020, to draw distinctions on both issues and personalities. And South Carolina will be watching.

The party has denied it, but many believe the South Carolina delegation was assigned to stay at the golf and spa resort 30 miles away from the convention site as punishment for holding primary earlier than party rules dictate. (The Florida delegation has the same upscale but remote lodging.) But it is precisely its early primary status that drew attention to Mr. Rubio's appearance before the group.

“The importance of your state to our party is almost impossible to overstate,” Mr. Rubio said. “What's your state motto? ‘We make presidents?' Well, you certainly make nominees, I can tell you that.”

(As Chad Connelly, the South Carolina Republican Party chairman later noted, there's now an “asterisk” on that record after South Carolina's Republicans chose Newt Gingrich earlier this year.)

After speaking and answering delegates' questions for about half an hour, Mr. Rubio promised to do some more handshaking and picture taking. But first things first: an aide finally handed him some coffee.