Marco Rubio Is Hillary Clinton’s New Enemy No. 1

With Jeb Bush dropping in the polls, the Clinton machine is starting to worry that Rubio could prove to be a formidable opponent in the general election.

11.10.15 6:00 AM ET

Back in the days when Hillary was doing her slow crawl toward a presidential campaign, the general feeling among her advisers and allies was that once the Republican circus dust settled, their opponent would be Jeb Bush. The logic was history—the GOP tends to eventually settle on the early frontrunner, the one who had the most money and party support, as its nominee.

And that was seen as mostly good news in Clintonworld, as Bush was the only plausible contender who appeared to neutralize the right’s anti-Clinton talking points.

Think Clinton is a has-been from the 1990s? Well then, you won’t vote for a Bush. Tired of political dynasties? Same. Disapprove of the Clintonian post-political dash for cash and the six-figure speaking fees at investment banks? Well, get a load of Bush’s post-gubernatorial work with Lehman Brothers. Even Mitt Romney told donors at a private meeting in New York that “a Bush can’t beat a Clinton.”

And best of all, because Jeb hailed from Florida, he would be unlikely (or legally unable) to run with Marco Rubio, whose Cuban heritage and campaign charisma would make him a potential game-changing veep pick.

As Bush sputtered out of the gate, Clintonistas still believed he would eventually right his ship, much as Mitt Romney and John McCain did before him. When the top campaign finance team gathered again in New York this month, Bush was still the object of most of the attention, even as he lags in the middle of the polling pack, with Rubio and now Trump getting a turn in the spotlight as well.

“The general feeling was, ‘We think it’s going to be Bush. We are a little worried about the possibility that it may be Marco, and the possibility of Trump is too delicious to even speak about out loud too much,’” said one donor who attended.

Since then, poll after poll has shown Bush struggling to keep his head above water. The Real Clear Politics polling averages put Bush in fifth place, behind not only celebrity candidates like Trump and Ben Carson but Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz too. In Iowa, he is polling behind Bobby Jindal. Despite spending twice as much as any other candidate in New Hampshire, Bush’s poll numbers have fallen there.

And so in Clinton-land, there has been a distinct shift in attention. The negative email hits on Bush from the campaign’s surrogate organizations, like its SuperPAC and the Democratic National Committee, have slowed to a trickle.

“There is a moratorium on hitting Jeb,” said one Democratic operative, who, like most of the dozen aides, operatives, and donors contacted for this article insisted on anonymity since Clinton is still mired in a primary. “We want his numbers to go up. Let’s face it—Jeb Bush was the ideal general election opponent for us, but unfortunately he has not cooperated with our plan.”

A general election matchup with Rubio will present its own set of problems. If he is able to run as well among Latinos as George W. Bush was in 2004, Democrats acknowledge that their path to victory gets exceedingly narrow. Rubio presents a youthful contrast to a woman who has been in public life for a quarter of a century, and can make his own case for a pathbreaking candidacy of his own right. Bush has tried to dull Rubio’s momentum by comparing him to another charismatic first-term senator: Barack Obama. But if this charge is meant to elicit the right’s favorite bogeyman, it gives loyal Clintonites, still wearing the scars of 2008, the frights as well.

“It’s youth versus experience again—that’s what inspires the terror,” said one top Clinton fundraiser. “He’s young, he’s ambitious, he’s got an ethnic advantage, he’s got a great personal story and he gives a great fucking speech.”

“Marco is the one who makes the policies matter a lot less,” added a Florida-based Clintonista. “It really becomes Marco versus Hillary, and not a race about the issues. He is the least cookie-cutter Republican out there.”

Democrats say they plan to prosecute their case against Rubio in much the same way that Clinton campaigned against Obama in the waning days of their 2008 race, and much the way that Bush is running against Rubio now: by raising questions about his readiness for the presidency.

“You could make the argument Marco Rubio is too young and inexperienced, especially in contrast with someone who is experienced, who is tough, who has been through it,” said Tom Nides, a former Clinton State Department official and a top fundraiser for her past and present presidential campaigns. “The country isn’t going to want someone who has never governed before and has only been in the Senate for a couple of years.”

Added another operative involved in both the 2012 and 2016 campaign efforts: “The phrase you are going to hear again and again is competence. Is this a guy ready for the world stage?”

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Over the last several political cycles, experience has been more of a bane than a boost—just ask John McCain. But Democrats say that this is a different moment—that after 16 years of newcomers in the White House finding themselves flummoxed by the ways of Washington, voters will at last turn to someone who knows how to turn the gears of power.

And they don’t expect to have to spend a lot of effort revealing that. Rubio, Democrats say, has scarcely been tested on the national stage, and in a general election setting will have a harder time sliding out from under tough questions. If it is an impressive show of rhetorical discipline, Democrats say, it belies an unsophisticated understanding of the issues.

“I think people who get hot and bothered about Rubio are overestimating him,” said Tracy Sefl, a veteran Democratic operative who helped lead the Ready for Hillary SuperPAC before its disbanding this summer. “I have a hard time seeing him hold his own in a debate against Hillary. He is super-glued to his talking points. Voters see through that.”

Added another operative working on the Clinton effort, “The question is how does he respond to being the frontrunner… The last time he was the great Republican hope he started sweating profusely on national television and it was thought to be the end of his political career.”

The Rubio record, Democrats say, has hardly undergone the kind of scrutiny it will face if he is the nominee. Unlike Obama, who largely lay in wait in the Illinois statehouse before winning election to the Senate, Rubio has been climbing the greasy pole of Florida politics, first as City Commissioner in West Miami, and later as a lawmaker in Tallahassee—neither places known as paragons of good governance.

“All you have to do is look at the stuff that Jeb is releasing,” said one operative working on the Democrats 2016 efforts. “I know Rubio is trying to position himself as this working-class guy, but most working-class people don’t have access to the Florida Republican Party’s credit card to buy flowers and jewelry for their wife.”

Even if he captures the nomination, Democrats wonder if Rubio will be able to capture the imagination of rank-and-file Republicans in the same way that he seems to have captured the imagination of the media. Conservative websites like Breitbart have been harping on Rubio’s onetime support for immigration reform for years, and it remains an open question about whether the older, whiter, more rural Republican base is ready for Rubio.

“There is a third of the Republican electorate—not two-thirds, not a half—that is nativistic and anti-Hispanic and is pushing the party to the right on these issues,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of both of Bill Clinton’s runs for the White House. “Can that third of the Republican Party, the ones who are backing Donald Trump right now, unite around Marco Rubio? I think that is an enormous question for him. I don’t know if their electorate is ready for him.”

Clintonworld Democrats also say that they will largely stick to the same script they have been reading from in the primaries—that Clinton is the politician who will fight for the middle class, and will try to paint Rubio as just a fresh face on a deeply conservative set of policies. The fact that Rubio now no longer supports a pathway to citizenship will keep his numbers down among Hispanics. And Democratic jaws dropped at the first Republican debate when Rubio said that he doesn’t support abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

“I think he is going to be easy to beat,” said one Democrat working on the 2016 campaign. “I just think Jeb would have been a little easier, but Republicans seem to have given up on him.”