Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the Spanish-speaking son of Cuban immigrants and a rising star in the Republican ranks, is generating more excitement and controversy — and potentially some hard feelings — inside the party than likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been able to create this year.
But while many in the party see Mr. Rubio as an ideal running mate for Mr. Romney in a year in which both the Hispanic vote and the senator's home state could prove crucial, the dance between the two men on whether Mr. Rubio is or isn't in the running has proven unusually awkward in the early stages. Rarely has such confusion and disagreement attended a potential vice presidential pick.
"This has been handled clumsily enough to raise questions at a time when Romney doesn't need it," said John Zogby, who conducts polls for The Washington Times.
There are questions surrounding the first-term senator — including reports of personal financial troubles in the past — but the press leaks this week that the Romney camp wasn't even vetting Mr. Rubio for the job — denied immediately by the candidate — and that the senator had been "excluded" from a Romney retreat in Utah this weekend only added to the image of confusion.
"The Romney camp is missing the point that whatever issues may come with Rubio — his personal financial debt in particular — they pale in comparison to the hit [the campaign] took this week with Hispanic voters and the fact that Rubio would lock down the extremely expensive TV multimedia market of Florida," said GOP pollster Matt Towery.
Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere said the Romney campaign could not have erred so badly as to purposely insult Mr. Rubio and his admirers by letting it be known about his not being vetted and not being invited to the retreat.
"I think Romney is just trying to slow down the Rubio train," said Mr. Villere. "I don't think he took him off the track yet."
Mr. Towery, however, noted that this "is a year the Republican nominee must lock down something substantive, like a big swing state, with the VP nominee."
The retreat stories reinforced the image of confusion.
A raft of potential running mates did get invited to the retreat at a Utah resort, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
Apparently taken by surprise by the no-vetting/no-invite stories, the Romney campaign took the highly unusual step of having the nominee himself announce that Sen. Rubio was, indeed, being seriously considered for the ticket. And a Romney campaign spokeswoman said, "He was invited to our retreat — just couldn't make it due to scheduling."
Mr. Rubio, who has tried to play down stories of conflict or lack of coordination with Mr. Romney, was at it again Thursday, telling reporters he was skipping the retreat for family reasons.
"If I had gone to Utah, I wouldn't have seen my kids for 15 days,'' he said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "And so I had a choice to make and I chose my kids."
A strategist close to the Romney campaign suspects Mr. Rubio may already be the chosen one and the Romney campaign is manipulating the press into believing otherwise — and getting Mr. Rubio even higher name recognition in the process.
"You look at all those supposedly vice presidential short-list invitees and not one, except maybe for Rob Portman, would bring enough to the ticket for Mitt to pick him," said this Republican, who has ties to the campaign.
But some influential Republicans said there were substantive and practical reasons why Mr. Romney should look elsewhere for a running mate.
"Romney will need to have control of the House and the Senate to right this economy," said Republican National Committee Vice President Ruth Ulrich. "I would think Sen. Rubio would be much more valuable where he is. That is what is nice about building a strong farm team."
And some even suggest Mr. Rubio himself, looking at poor track records of past vice presidents who later made a run for the Oval Office, may recognize a call from Mr. Romney is not in his best long-term political interests.
Said GOP strategist Paul Erickson, "The road from Observatory Hill [the official Washington residence of the vice president] to the White House is lined with the corpses of vice presidents who ignored history."
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