When Sen. Marco Rubio ran for president the first time, he was in a hurry.
But now, Rubio, R-Fla., is gearing for a third Senate bid, and he appears OK to wait.
"You can be the world's greatest surfer and you can show up to the beach with the best surfboard you can imagine," he said in a recent interview when asked about his ambitions for 2024. "But if there's no waves that day, there's nothing you can do about it."
Former President Donald Trump is looming large — over Rubio's 2022 race and over the White House hopes of any number of other Republicans looking ahead to the next presidential primaries. Backers and critics agree that the Trump era was transformative for Rubio, who once thought he wouldn't last long in the Senate.
"If you look at the last four-plus years, it's been radically different from what he's accomplished," a senior adviser said, adding that Rubio's change of heart about the Senate as an institution is "directly tied to his success."
He hasn't stopped thinking about the White House for himself — or of himself as the Republican with the transformative vision for a party that has centered some of the cultural, economic and foreign policy issues he seeks to champion. And as he prepares for a re-election fight, he has sought to walk a line between acknowledging President Joe Biden's legitimacy and backing Republican-led efforts to change voting laws as Trump continues to falsely claim that widespread fraud cost him a second term.
His proponents say Rubio has emerged as a voice that bucks traditional GOP orthodoxy on issues like trade, racking up legislative successes while proving himself a key ally of Trump's. Critics see in Rubio someone who is shapeshifting as he seeks to further ingratiate himself with Trump's voters ahead of another bid for the presidency.
During the 2016 GOP primaries, Rubio criticized Trump for egging on violence at his rallies and said that "for years to come," Americans would have to "explain and justify how they fell into this trap of supporting Donald Trump, because this is not going to end well."
But Rubio buried his differences with Trump as Trump became the GOP nominee, in a way that proved especially fruitful by a number of metrics.
After reluctantly running for and winning a second term, he took a lead role in expanding the child tax credit — also a priority of Trump's daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump — as part of the 2017 tax overhaul, the culmination of a longtime effort. Last year, Rubio co-authored the Paycheck Protection Program and shepherded the Covid-19 relief bill for small businesses into law, a landmark achievement.
Simultaneously, Rubio worked closely with Trump on foreign policy, so much so that he was described as "a virtual secretary of state for Latin America." More recently, he has been among several leading contributors to bipartisan legislation about China making its way through Congress. And, as Florida's senior senator, Rubio centered issues close to home. In March, the New York Times editorial board called Rubio the Senate's "most vigorous champion" for Everglades National Park.
His efforts have led to other accolades. The University of Virginia/Vanderbilt University Center for Effective Lawmaking rated Rubio as the most effective Republican senator in the last Congress.
But as his Senate fortunes have changed, so, too, has Rubio, who was once known as the aspirational voice of conservatism. Critics who watch him speak now say he seeks to channel the same cultural grievances and anger that helped propel Trump to the presidency.
"He was always kind of a happy warrior," said Steve Schale, a top Florida Democratic operative who has known Rubio since his time in the state Legislature. "It feels like he has spent the last couple of years trying to figure out a voice. And it doesn't feel authentic to the Marco Rubio who I've followed for more than 20 years of his career. I don't get angry Marco. That's just not who he is."
Rubio disputed that idea.
"I think my instincts have always been where they are now," Rubio said. "As you're exposed to new facts, new realities, and as the world changes, so, too, does your public policy response to it."
Allies say Rubio's approach was affirmed by Florida's decisively red shift. Trump won the state handily last year, and in Rubio's home county, Miami-Dade, Republicans gained about 200,000 votes compared to 2016, while Democrats lost more than 5,000.
Florida's Senate race is one of the marquee matchups on the 2022 calendar, and Rubio has spent recent months trying to define what right-wing populist messaging and policy look like with Trump out office but still holding considerable sway over GOP voters. Rubio had his hands in virtually every such effort on the right, from the "wokeness" backlash to the party's evolving platform on China. He is even at the forefront of UFO mania.
Democrats see in Rubio someone who abandoned principles to become one of the Senate's most MAGA members. But they know he'll be tough to beat next year. Already, one of the state's top Democrats, Rep. Val Demings, plans to challenge him. (Trump gave Rubio his "complete and total endorsement.")
"He wants to be all things to all people," said Fernand Amandi, a Florida Democratic consultant. "The challenge for those that are not supporters of Rubio is that he's yet to really pay a political price in any real context."
Yet for all his recent maneuvering, it's an open question whether Rubio could persuade GOP primary voters to follow. A 2024 White House bid depends on a number of factors — chief among them whether Trump runs.
"Well, I've run for president once, so clearly I've had interest in the position," Rubio said. "And so for me to tell you that I would never run again is silly. But what I can't tell you is I don't know what the world looks like in 2024. I don't know what my life looks like in 2024. I don't know what the party will be looking for in 2024. A lot of that is going to depend on factors I can't predict and, frankly, in many cases don't control."
A Mason-Dixon survey released in March found that 46 percent of Florida voters thought he should be re-elected, while 40 percent didn't. At the presidential level, Rubio polled at just 1 percent in a Morning Consult/Politico poll of the 2024 primary race last month, trailing Trump and a handful of other hopefuls.
"At a certain level, he knows where the wind is blowing," said a GOP Senate aide who doesn't work for Rubio. "But he's always been a more interesting thinker than he gets credit for."
After the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Rubio said Trump "bears responsibility for some of what happened," although he would go on to say the second impeachment trial was "stupid" and vote for Trump's acquittal. Last month, he condemned the proposed Jan. 6 commission as "a partisan joke" that was "about damaging Republicans."
Asked about the argument of Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., that embracing or ignoring Trump's electoral falsehoods for fundraising and political purposes would "do profound long-term damage to our party and our country," Rubio demurred.
"There are people that want to believe what they want to believe," Rubio said. "And to the extent that those issues come up, if you're asked about it, you address it. Was the election stolen? I never said that it was. I pointed to our process for counting ballots and the way all that works. But that's fine. I understand covering what President Trump has said and is saying is interesting."
He argued that "every minute" spent debating the 2020 election is wasteful. (Other Republicans would disagree: Trump and allies are pushing for an expansion of partisan ballot reviews like the one underway in Arizona to other states, including Pennsylvania.)
"One hundred years from now, when somebody sits down and writes history and they write about the decisions being made at this moment, they may very well mention the 2020 election and the controversy surrounding it," he said. "But I assure you that when they write the book on the 21st century, all of what's happened in the last six months may be mentioned, but at the core of it is going to be what was the relationship between the United States and China? And what decisions did the United States make at that critical moment?"
As the GOP primary field awaits Trump's decision, a former Rubio staffer said, "I don't think anybody should ever count out Marco Rubio for anything."