It was a study in contrasts. One candidate’s presidential campaign formally began with a slick Internet video announcement followed by a road trip to meet voters one-on-one in Iowa. The other candidate’s campaign hewed to tradition by beginning with a formal speech before a large crowd, followed by media interviews (plus a quick social media video), then back to work in the U.S. Senate. Who is the candidate of the future?
Accentuating the contrast was that the politician embracing the new age of crafty web salesmanship was 67-year-old Democrat Hillary Clinton, while the contender marching down the trail of convention and custom was the youngest of the 2016 presidential hopefuls, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, 43, of Florida.
Another contrast comes in their prospects of success. Clinton, a veteran of national politics for a quarter of a century, has all but an unimpeded path to her party’s nomination and may raise $2 billion for her campaign. Rubio, a rising star but still a newcomer on the nation’s political stage, is only a blip in most polls and faces a field of several well-funded, energetic contestants vying to be the GOP’s standard bearer.
Yet, things are not always as simple as they seem.
Clinton’s sophisticated Internet production and her two-day ride in a van to meet voters in Iowa had an artificial feel. It was all about “reintroducing” a well known personality, but one whose last bid for the White House crashed in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus in 2008, portending her eventual loss of the nomination.
The most reported event early in the road trip turned out to be a not so flattering security cam video showing Clinton in sunglasses ordering a chicken bowl at a Chipotle in Ohio. No one recognized her. Even Clinton-friendly commentators couldn’t help but note that her husband, a more natural politician, would have used the occasion to mingle in a display of political bonhomie.
But for this trip, the only voters Clinton was interested in mingling with would be those who might influence the Iowa caucus.
Clinton’s political calculations, or that of her staff, concluded that in contrast to the big campaign rallies in 2008, this time she had to be warm, friendly and low key. Hence, intimate meetings with a handful of voters in a living room or a group of students at a community college. For all its artificiality, this strategy may pay off. Voters do respond to politicians acting humble.
Like Bill Clinton, Rubio is a natural politician. His previous victorious elections all overcame formidable odds. He has a winning personality and charisma. His youth brings comparisons to John F. Kennedy, who was 43 when elected president.
But watching his speech, I thought of another comparison — to Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rubio shares their winning characteristics of buoyant optimism and a sunny deposition. Those are qualities that can inspire. The son of poor Cuban immigrants, Rubio exults America as a land of opportunity and freedom where aspirations can “be more than just dreams.”
He faces big challenges. The Republican chattering classes calculate the party would be best off nominating a governor with a record of executive accomplishment, such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin. To them, Rubio, and Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, resemble Barack Obama in 2008, a first-term senator running for the highest office in the land.
Rubio’s biggest obstacle may be his one-time mentor and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The conventional wisdom is that Bush is the choice of the GOP monied establishment.
So Rubio has a lot to prove in the months ahead. Still, in his campaign rollout, he demonstrated a potential to bring something to the Republican field that no other candidate has shown the ability to match with the same intensity — the capacity to inspire cheery, bright, hopeful, joyful, optimistic enthusiasm. Money and calculating politics can’t replace that.