As Marco Rubio sliced through a pork roast at an Iowa fairgrounds, not even a softball question about his family's beloved Cuba could get the Republican presidential hopeful to veer from friendly chit-chat to engage in a more substantive political conversation.
The Florida senator, who is beginning to introduce himself to the American heartland, preferred to stick to safe topics like the deliciousness of the Iowa-made pork seasoning or roasting techniques.
Had this been his hometown of Miami, there would have almost certainly been a reference to carnitas, a favorite Latino pork dish. But this being Iowa, Rubio hardly breathed a word of Spanish throughout the event, which brought together several GOP presidential candidates hoping to make an impression in the state with the nation’s first presidential caucus.
Asked by a reporter to address more serious issues, Rubio again brushed questions off with a smile, keeping his eye on the roast pork. “We’re working here,” he said cheerfully.
Rubio’s candidacy has steadily and quietly ascended in the complicated Republican primary field. Even though he rarely tops the polls, Rubio seems to be everyone’s first pick as a second choice, reflected in a recent Des Moines Register poll. Strategists say that gives Rubio the potential to emerge as a strong consensus candidate in a GOP field that already features nearly a dozen aspirants.
Rubio, 44, has a youthful, upbeat message that he hopes will contrast not only with Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton, but also with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other Republican contenders.
Rubio’s potential appeal to minority voters, particularly Latinos, is another key selling point as the Republican Party struggles to broaden its base.
But it’s unclear whether he can parlay boyish charisma and soaring rhetoric into a viable presidential bid, and some voters and strategists are asking the same disarmingly simple question about Rubio: Is there any there there?
And as he moves his campaign into Midwestern and early nominating states with less diversity -- Iowa is about 92% white -- it remains to be seen whether Rubio’s appeal will translate with traditional GOP voters.
“I really need more information on him,” said Janelle File, a retired bank vice president, after listening to Rubio speak. “He’s really well-spoken and has a great background. But I really want to see more.”
Last weekend's pig roast and motorcycle ride, hosted by Republican Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst in Boone, could have been Rubio’s moment to shine. It was his second trip to the state, and highly anticipated. With his message of economic conservatism, Christian values and a strong national defense, Rubio was poised to capitalize on his early support for Ernst, the popular senator elected last November.
But Rubio didn’t seem to impress the crowd as much as he has in other settings. In pressed khakis and a starched-collar shirt, Rubio could barely compete with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who swaggered into the roast-and-ride event wearing blue jeans and leather.
Rubio skipped the motorcycle ride and politely declined Ernst’s offer to ride on the back of her bike. He joked that he would do better at a Jet Ski race.
In many ways, Rubio is an outsider here in middle America, and he takes care not to come off as too youthful, urban or ethnic. In telling his family’s immigrant story here, he didn’t mention his parents' journey from Cuba, as he usually does.
Rubio instead presented himself as someone just like them: a dad who pays the mortgage, sends his kids to Christian school and believes the new generation will do better.
“I had some people say I’m not old enough or haven’t been in government long enough,” he told the crowd. “I’m 44 years old, but I feel 45, and I’ve been in government long enough to know that what we’re doing now doesn’t work. If we keep promoting the same people, we will get the same result and the future will leave us behind.”
Rubio’s aides characterize his campaign strategy as “lean and mean,” and deny any desire to push Rubio more out front than he is, preferring a come-from-behind strategy. He has yet to hire a director for his Iowa operations, as others have, though aides insist the campaign is ramping up and more staff is coming.
Iowa voters are a famously persnickety bunch, both aggressive in their expectation that every candidate will court their vote and passive in their unwillingness to commit to any one presidential hopeful too soon.
That might be in part because Republicans here have picked a string of losers recently in a statewide caucus that prides itself on being the first testing ground for presidential candidates. Their past GOP choices, Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, failed to win the party’s nomination, let alone the White House.
That could provide an opening for Rubio as Iowans look for a viable alternative to likely front-runners Bush and Walker. “Many of us Iowans are super-sensitive to this: We’re tired of being the angry white-guy party,” said one senior Republican in the state, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the choices. “It doesn’t hurt that [Rubio is] a different face.”
Younger voters in particular call Rubio a favorite, and at the Iowa event the few Latino voters in the predominantly white crowd dashed over to Rubio for selfies.
“You’re going to be all over Facebook,” shouted one fan.
“That’s great; we need to be!” Rubio responded.
“I love Rubio,” swooned Laurie Millam, who runs the business school at an online university. She said she particularly liked how the Latino candidate smoothed racial and partisan distinctions with a “one America” message.
Recent media scrutiny about Rubio’s personal debt and his family’s many traffic tickets may only be helping him among ordinary Americans. At the speech, one Iowan jokingly offered driving lessons. The campaign has taken it all lightly, starting the satirical Twitter hashtag, #RubioCrimeSpree.
They attribute nearly $100,000 in online donations over the last few days to people sending money in response as a gesture of support.
At some point, Rubio will need to sit down at the kitchen table and display the skills and resources necessary to tell voters his vision for the nation, much like he did when he was a long-shot Senate candidate going door-to-door five years ago in Florida.
Cornered by one young voter with questions about the future of federal spending, Rubio broke from script and launched into a discourse on the economics of Medicare costs and need for entitlement spending reforms.
But several Iowans were less than impressed with Rubio’s performance.
When asked about Rubio’s speech, Joe Wells, a retired aviation services manager from Cedar Rapids, responded in a distinctly Iowa-nice way: He changed the subject.
“I never heard from Carly before,” he said, referring to Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive turned presidential candidate, who also attended the event.
When pressed for his views on Rubio, Wells gave a lukewarm assessment: “He’s certainly better than Bush or Christie,” a reference to the New Jersey governor.
Brenda Remsing, a homemaker from Corydon who rode to Boone on the back of friend’s motorcycle, likes Sen. Ted Cruz, the firebrand Texas Republican, but she puts Rubio as her second favorite.
“He’d be a good No. 1 -- if I can’t have No. 1,” she said.
For Rubio, for now, that might be endorsement enough.