POLITICS

Trio of 2016 GOP candidates are freshman senators - like Obama in '08

Cruz, Rubio and Paul are freshman senators seeking the White House, just as Obama did

Before coming to Washington, Rand Paul was an eye doctor and anti-tax crusader in Kentucky. Marco Rubio was speaker of the Florida House. Ted Cruz was the top appellate lawyer for the state of Texas.

Those jobs would seem to pale beside their current position as members of the U.S. Senate — or the World's Most Exclusive Club, as it fancies itself.

But each is busily dredging up those occupational fragments as they pursue the White House, for a simple reason: Like the current occupant, all three Republicans are trying to win the presidency before they finish a single term on Capitol Hill.

That shared trait with Barack Obama is not a welcome thing, especially in the fight for the Republican nomination.

When he ran in 2008, Obama's short-time status was an asset, promising, as he did then, a cleansing breeze and much-desired break with the fusty, fossilized ways of Washington.

But more than six years into the Obama administration, the nation's capital has hardly changed — it seems every bit as stagnant and toxic as it was then — a disappointment that critics lay squarely at the feet of an overmatched president.

Now it is experience that voters seem to crave, a leader who, in the words of Democratic pollster Peter Hart, "has the political skills to get the job done."

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey that Hart helped conduct found that just 7% of voters were "enthusiastic" or "comfortable" with the notion of electing another first-term senator as president.

Hence the effort by Rubio, Cruz and Paul to show how their assorted backgrounds make them so much more than rookie lawmakers and so very unlike President Obama.

"I think our histories are much different," Florida Sen. Rubio asserted last month on NBC's "Today" show, answering one of the first questions the morning after he declared his candidacy.

"I've served in local government. I've served at state government for nine years in the third-largest state in the country," he said. "I was the speaker of the Florida House. All that before I even got to Washington."

"There are sharp differences between President Obama and me," Texas Sen. Cruz said when the question was put to him at a gathering last month of Republican Jewish donors in Las Vegas. "Unlike President Obama, before I was in the Senate I wasn't a community organizer. I was the solicitor general of Texas for 5½ years, a major executive position."

"I think you can find good senators and bad senators," Paul said when Sean Hannity, the Fox News personality, raised the Obama comparison in an interview the day after the Kentucky senator's campaign kickoff. "People should be judged on their entire character."

It is doubtful any of the three will rise or fall solely on the basis of their relative youth — Rubio is 43, Cruz 44, Paul 52 — or lack of a long Washington pedigree. (Obama was 46 and less than half a decade removed from the Illinois state Senate, where he served eight years, when he ran for president in 2008.)

But, at the least, it is an "elevated concern," said Kevin Madden, a GOP communications strategist, especially for Republican voters seeking a candidate who is nothing at all like the incumbent.

"The question is how they differentiate themselves and demonstrate they are not going to have the same liabilities that President Obama displayed in office, which is essentially an inability to work with Congress, a lack of experience in foreign policy and things like that," said Madden, who is watching the Republican race from the sidelines.

Each of the three candidates has sought to answer that question in different ways: Rubio by emphasizing his work on the Senate's intelligence and foreign relations committees; Paul by citing his medical background — a contrast, he suggests, with the abundance of lawyers and politicians in Washington — and Cruz by noting his pugnacious personality, which he contrasts with the more tepid Obama.

"You can accuse me of a whole lot of faults," Cruz told Republican donors gathered in Las Vegas, "but being a backbencher ain't one of them."

It is rare to go straight from the Senate to the White House. A senator may cast well over 1,000 votes in each six-year term, every one of them a land mine with the potential to explode somewhere in their future. In the whole history of the country, only three senators have made the direct leap from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other: Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy and Obama.

It seems no accident the latter two did so in the modern age of electioneering, when television and the rise of other media loosened the grip of party leaders and placed a premium on personality and the building of an individual political brand.

For all its pitfalls, the Senate offers an unparalleled opportunity to grow a national following without a lot of legislative drudgery, as Paul and Cruz have both demonstrated.

Paul became a political celebrity and a hero to young libertarians with his 2013 filibuster against the Obama administration's drone policy. (Paul delivered a similar marathon speech last week aimed at ending the National Security Agency's domestic spying program.)

Later that year, Cruz became a favorite of conservatives nationwide when he helped engineer a government shutdown in a fight over funding the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare to detractors. (Never mind that the effort failed and antagonized many of Cruz's GOP colleagues.)

Both candidates, along with Rubio, hope to make the case that, though they are in Washington, they are not of Washington, that they have served long enough to know what is wrong with the federal government without having become a part of its problem.

It was an argument that worked brilliantly for Obama in 2008.

The question is whether his record and performance over the last six years have foreclosed that pathway for other freshman senators to follow in 2016.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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