Déjà Vu Florida

Marco Rubio.Marco Rubio. | AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Marco Rubio’s low-profile summer is over.

The Republican presidential candidate has entered a new phase of his campaign, stepping up early state visits, grassroots events and media interviews. After months of quiet campaigning, during which Rubio and his small team ignored low poll numbers, ducked reporters and largely flew beneath the radar, he’s suddenly drawing sharper contrasts with Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, and is embarking on an eight-state swing packed with fundraisers and public speeches.

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This is what Rubio déjà vu looks like.

Rubio is using the same playbook he used six years ago as a longshot Senate candidate against Charlie Crist, another Florida governor who appeared to have a lock on the GOP establishment.

And he wants everyone to see the parallels with his 2010 race.

“In some ways, a similar thing is happening now, ” Rubio last week told the crowd at the Villages retirement community, a must-stop on the Florida campaign trail, where he imitated the nameless voice of the GOP establishment repeating itself in 2015 and 2009: “Oh, you need to wait your turn.”

When Rubio announced in May 2009, he trailed Crist by double digits and was written off by pundits who thought he couldn’t mount a serious campaign due to his lack of money, experience and support. But they — and Crist — underestimated conservative discontent and Rubio’s ability to harness it.

To hear Bush backers describe Rubio’s chances today — a few of whom, though not Bush himself, supported Crist — is like time-travelling back to the Senate campaign, when Crist supporters boasted of the governor’s fundraising prowess and institutional support.

The flavor of Rubio’s campaign and the techniques it employs also have a familiar ring: Mind every dollar, ignore early polls, grow the campaign slowly with fiercely loyal staff and supporters, don’t become over-exposed in the news media, and rely on the candidate’s gift for public speaking and engaging with voters.

Anthony Bustamante, one of Rubio’s earliest Senate campaign hires, said Rubio learned a critical lesson in the 2010 race: how to run a campaign like a small business. In one instance, they drove five hours from Miami to Jacksonville for a one-hour fundraiser, only to head right back home.

“We drove 10 hours for $900. On the drive back down, Marco was doing the math: ‘This minus the Avis rent-a-car bill, minus the cost of the food and gas and so we cleared $700 today.’ That happened over and over again, ” Bustamante said. “It was an enterprise. We had to be frugal and responsible with every dollar. We tried to avoid hotel stays. Marco wanted to get home to be with his family, and he didn’t want to spend the money. When you’re counting dollars, $100 for a night’s stay is $100 you could spend somewhere else.”

Lacking money and organization early in his Senate run, Rubio couldn’t afford to hold events organized by staff. So he accepted speaking invitations for events thrown by others and capitalized on the free exposure.

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