Sen. Marco Rubio outlined his vision Wednesday of a more muscular American foreign policy, the latest salvo in his effort to elevate his profile as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney begins his search for a running mate.
The Florida Republican's half-hour speech at the centrist Brookings Institution came four weeks after he endorsed Romney and two days after campaigning with him. He also recently has spoken of a new immigration proposal that breaks ranks with some in his own party.
Both in Washington and around the country, the 40-year-old Cuban-American is pushing himself forward as a fresh conservative. He has remained coy about whether he would join Romney's ticket this November, but his careful criticism of President Barack Obama's leadership as well as the isolationist tendencies among some Republicans reinforced the image he has projected of himself as a tough conservative but one moderate enough for national election.
"Global problems do require international coalitions. On that point this administration is correct," Rubio told a crowd of almost 200 academics, policymakers and diplomats. "But effective international coalitions don't form themselves. They need to be instigated and led, and more often than not, they can only be instigated and led by us. And that is what this administration doesn't understand."
Introduced by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, Rubio didn't address whether he's seeking the same office. The freshman lawmaker has frequently been mentioned as a potential choice for Romney and a Republican Party struggling to improve its standing with Hispanic voters. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed Obama with a commanding 67 percent to 27 percent advantage over Romney with Hispanics.
Rubio provided a hawkish yet sober prescription for American leadership in conflicts from the Middle East and Asia to Latin America. He went beyond general Republican opposition to many of Obama's policies and avoided the outlandish claims that peppered Republican presidential primary debates last year.
He lamented "liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans" who championed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and opposed involvement in Libya, and said Obama should have done even more to advance the cause of the rebels who toppled Moammar Gadhafi.
Yet he voiced support for Obama's statements against a nuclear-armed Iran and praised President George W. Bush's aid efforts in Africa and President Bill Clinton's decision to intervene in Kosovo without a U.N. mandate. And he recounted cooperating with Democratic senators to raise pressure on human rights abusers and backsliding democracies from Syria to Nicaragua, standing up to the isolationist camps in both parties.
"Today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left," Rubio said, positioning himself in the moderate center.
It's a message that could strengthen his vice presidential appeal. After a bruising primary campaign that saw Romney forced into addressing divisive social policy questions and stress his emerging conservative views over his record as a moderate Massachusetts governor, he must now pivot back to the center for the general election.
A married father of four who defeated a popular ex-governor to become senator, Rubio's good looks, Latino heritage and conservatism give him obvious star power in the Republican Party. After a first year spent mainly hunkering down on senatorial work and avoiding the limelight, like Hillary Rodham Clinton a dozen years ago, he now appears to be positioning himself as a party leader.
Even if he stays out of this presidential race and Romney loses, Rubio would presumably be among the GOP front-runners for 2016. He'd be 45 and a six-year veteran of the Senate by then, with ample time to shape his public persona. And the Hispanic share of the vote will only increase in the meantime.
Rubio's immigrant family story received scrutiny with his claim that his parents, like hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans in Florida, left the island after Castro's 1959 revolution. But unlike many exiles, Rubio's parents had returned to Cuba briefly in the early 1960s but came back to the U.S. to stay. A new issue emerged this week. Federal records show an immigration judge ordered Rubio's grandfather deported to Cuba in 1962. Pedro Victor Garcia eventually was allowed to stay in the U.S. when the Cuban Adjustment Act was passed in 1966. His status during the four intervening years remains unclear.
Rubio's efforts to find compromise on immigration legislation may bolster his _ if not the party's _ image with Hispanic voters. Rubio's bill would allow young illegal immigrants to remain in the United States but stops short of citizenship, carving out a middle ground between the Obama-supported "DREAM Act" and Republican lawmakers who've advocated increased deportation.
The measure would permit young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. with their parents to apply for non-immigrant visas. They would be allowed to stay to study or work and obtain a driver's license but would not be able to vote. They later could apply for residency, but they would not have a special path to citizenship.
Rubio on Wednesday didn't connect his immigration proposal with his larger foreign policy vision. But he stressed greater American engagement globally and a clear rejection of the argument that "it is time to focus less on the world and more on ourselves."
"What happens all over the world is our business," Rubio said. "There is no one else to hand off the baton to, even if it were wise to do so. On the most difficult transnational challenges of our time, who will lead if we do not? The answer, at least today, is that no other nation or organization is willing or able to do so."
A reported threat against Rubio is under investigation by the U.S. Capitol Police force. Capitol Police Lt. Kimberly Schneider said Wednesday she could not provide details of the investigation. Rubio's office and the FBI declined to comment.