Rubio winner from Romney decision

Story highlights

  • Mitt Romney tells supporters Friday he does not intend to run for president in 2016
  • Ruben Navarrette: Rubio gets a Christmas present he can really use: a second chance

Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

San Diego (CNN)Marco is having a moment.

As in Marco Rubio, the 43-year-old senator from Florida, who seems to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity among fellow Republicans. It's something that just six months ago, few political observers could have predicted. And if Rubio is interested in applying for a job on Pennsylvania Avenue, as seems to be the case, the timing of this warm embrace couldn't be better.
Ruben Navarrette-Profile-Image
On Friday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney bowed out of the 2016 presidential campaign, telling supporters on a call that he believes it's "best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity" to become the nominee.
    "I feel that it is critical that America elect a conservative leader to become our next president," Romney said on the call. "You know that I have wanted to be that president. But I do not want to make it more difficult for someone else to emerge who may have a better chance of becoming that president."
    Could Rubio be that someone? If so, a lot of people who know a lot about politics didn't see it coming.
    In fact, last summer, a Republican strategist who knows Rubio fairly well told me that not only was it not a foregone conclusion that the one-time GOP golden boy would seek the presidency in 2016, but he might even hang it up altogether and not even run for re-election to the Senate.
    What's unbelievable is that, at the time, I found this far-fetched assessment completely believable. Back then, Rubio seemed to be a man without a constituency.
    After landing on the cover of Time in February 2013 under the headline: "The Republican Savior," Rubio spent the next several months getting hammered by conservatives -- on cable television and talk radio -- for joining the Senate's "Gang of Eight" and proposing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Some of the attacks were comical; a top Rubio aide told me that the Cuban-American, who was born in the United States, was getting nativist hate mail telling him to "go back to Mexico."
    Eventually, Rubio caved in to the pressure and backed away from his own legislation. As a result, he spent most of 2014 getting hammered by the left as a flip-flopper, while being distrusted by the right, which saw him as soft on illegal immigration.
    Making matters worse, by then, there was another player in this game: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who arrived in Washington in January 2013 and proceeded to do to the GOP establishment in the Senate what a candy-starved kid does to a piñata. The fire-breathing Cruz wasted no time in railing against "amnesty" and quickly became the anti-Rubio, someone who conservatives could trust to keep the border secure (and the immigration debate safe from honesty and common sense).
    With Cruz's arrival, Rubio's stock with the right dropped further. The self-described son of exiles was himself an exile from his own party.
    But that was then. Last month, Rubio got a Christmas present he could really use: a second chance. It came courtesy of the White House and President Barack Obama's proposed policy change to open up relations with Cuba. Rubio's parents left the island in 1956, and so they are more accurately described as immigrants than refugees. But, once Fidel Castro took power in 1959, they were never able to return. So, as Rubio has noted, they lived much of their lives in the United States feeling like exiles.
    Rubio opposes the Obama administration's policy change, and he has won accolades from conservatives for offering a forceful counter view.
    Which brings us back to this moment. Think of it as the Rubio renaissance. The senator has done himself a lot of good by getting out of Washington and meeting with Republicans around the country. He is selling a new book, "American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone." He is also holding fundraisers, and, from the looks of it, gearing up to run for the GOP nomination for president.
    A CBS News poll earlier this month showed Rubio trailing Romney and Bush, but besting several other serious potential primary rivals, including Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. With Romney out of the race, Rubio could soak up much of his support. One could assume that many of those who were "for Romney" took that position because they didn't want to be "for Bush." Maybe now they'll be "for Rubio."
    Rubio is already making a pitch to those voters. After the news broke that Romney was stepping aside, the senator said this:
    "Over the past two years, there hasn't been a day when I didn't think that Mitt Romney would have been a better president than Barack Obama. Over the years, I've enjoyed getting to know Mitt and campaigning for him, was grateful for his support in my Senate race, and I know what a difficult decision this must be given his love of our country. He certainly earned the right to consider running, so I deeply respect his decision to give the next generation a chance to lead."
    And guess who, at 43, is part of the next generation?
    Given that Bush and Rubio both hail from Florida, you have to wonder if both will actually end up running for president next year; things could get a little crowded in the primary. At 61, Bush has seniority. But don't count on Rubio bowing out just to be polite.
    Much has been made about the fact that Bush is supposedly Rubio's political mentor, but folks close to both men claim this narrative is overblown. They are two Florida Republicans, they have similar politics, and they draw from the same pool of supporters and donors. That's it. Don't expect any deference. All is fair in love, war and politics.
    It's still very early in the 2016 saga. And yet the poll that really matters is the enthusiasm meter. These days, every time Rubio steps into a room, he takes control of it. He's there on television, arguing against opening up Cuba and praising dissidents in Havana. He's out talking about ISIS and other foreign policy issues, dueling with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who preaches a repackaged but still dangerous form of isolationism. And he appeared with Paul and Cruz at a recent forum in Palm Springs, California, and impressed attendees as someone who comes armed with substance, not just sound bites.
    A California Republican who saw Rubio speak during this week's swing through the Golden State says she was reminded why she was once so enamored of him. She said he has good instincts, and that he is charming, smart, serious, and that he understands America's unique role in the world.
    I would add that Rubio is also a fresh face and a master communicator who knows how to navigate the media. He is Latino, and the GOP needs to mend fences with that group. He is also bilingual, so he can bring the party's message to immigrant audiences that Republicans usually avoid.
    All these tools will come in handy as Rubio enters the arena and begins the long journey to what his suddenly replenished ranks of supporters hope will be the securing of the Republican nomination.
    Pull up a chair. This is one moment that could last a while.