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Marco Rubio doesn't want to be the "Hispanic candidate."Paul Ryan doesn't want to be the "austerity guy."
Both want to run for president, or keep the option wide open. So each is trying to change his own image -- and with it, the Republican Party's -- starting Tuesday night with dueling speeches at the Jack Kemp Foundation's awards dinner.
While Congress dawdled this summer, Rubio, 41, assigned his policy experts to figure out ways to help make the middle class wealthier -- and add a dose of substance to the charismatic presidential hopeful's resume. Reaching out to academics and think tanks to build Rubio's network, the senator and his staff developed a two-year reinvention project and an "upward mobility agenda," including programs like early childhood education, school choice and incentives for entrepreneurs. Those are some of the proposals he'll test-drive at the Kemp Foundation dinner, where he'll receive the group's second leadership award. The first winner: Paul Ryan.
Rubio also plans new ideas on immigration, aimed not at broad citizenship but at creating a bigger Hispanic middle class. "The answer," Rubio will say in his after-dinner remarks, "is not to make rich people poorer. The answer is to make poor people richer." If he makes the sale in countless such appearances over the next two years, he'll begin a formal presidential campaign shortly after the midterm elections of November 2014, Rubio sources tell us.
Ryan, 42, will kick off his own drive to redefine the party -- and himself -- as the pre-dinner keynote speaker before 300-plus conservative faithful on the same stage, detailing his thinking on how people of all classes can rise up economically and improve socially. Top Republicans tell us Ryan tried to push his ideas for a more creative "war on poverty" during the presidential campaign but was muzzled by nervous Nellies at Mitt Romney's Boston headquarters who didn't see an immediate political payoff. So Ryan seethed when the "47 percent" tape emerged, convinced that the impact was worse because the campaign had no record on issues relating to inclusion or poverty, exacerbating the out-of-touch image that the hidden camera cemented.
Republicans are eager for both men to perform an image makeover on a party dominated by older, straight, white men. Ironically, Romney's double debacle of getting caught on tape lampooning the "47 percent" of voters who get government benefits, then blaming those "gift"-getters for his defeat, has created an enormous opening for Rubio, Ryan and other 2016 hopefuls. Suddenly, even Sean Hannity seems hungry for some change.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association and himself a possibility for 2016 -- told us that the need for fresh policies is urgent. "The rich can defend themselves," Jindal said. "It's not about betraying our principles or becoming a second Democratic Party but, rather, showing how our principles work to help real families, and connecting that to the American dream."
By our count, upward of 20 Republicans are giving strong consideration to running for president to set the new GOP direction. Rubio and Ryan sit atop the list. But Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush have serious ambitions -- and serious GOP cred.
In the next year, though, no two men in American politics will get more attention, have more power and speak more prominently about the direction of the post-Romney GOP than Rubio and Ryan. Rubio is now the party's biggest draw. And Ryan's post as House Budget Committee chairman keeps him front and center in the fiscal fights dominating Congress. He is the policy pope for many, if not most, House Republicans.
So Tuesday's dinner at Washington's Mayflower Renaissance has become an unofficial kickoff to 2016.
Ryan will speak on strengthening civil society and improving social and economic mobility -- areas where he believes serious Republicans and serious Democrats can find common ground in an otherwise bifurcated Washington. "Paul's focus has been narrow, budget issues," said Jimmy Kemp, president of the Jack Kemp Foundation, and the youngest of Jack Kemp's four children. "Now he is called to higher ground, and it is important for him to speak about his worldview."
Campaign sources tell us that within days of being named Romney's running mate, Ryan began agitating to reach out to people living in disadvantaged, at-risk communities, arguing internally that Republicans are badly served when they seem to be talking only to rich white people and advancing an agenda that benefits primarily the well-off. He contended that the real victims of the war on poverty -- the poor -- don't trust Republicans and might be less suspicious if they got the sense that the party cared about them or was sympathetic to their needs.
The response from Romney aides: Forget it. Romney advisers decreed that there was no obvious political constituency for those ideas that was winnable by Republicans and that it was off-message for a campaign preaching a broader economic message. With two weeks left in the campaign, Ryan finally gave a civil society speech at Cleveland State University, one of his favorite moments of the campaign. But the speech was too late and was drowned out.
Ryan held his tongue as long as he was on the ticket but on Tuesday night will say what he has been wanting to say for months -- but which, to be fair, he has seldom said during the course of his political career. He will open this new phase not with his trademark call for fiscal restraint or a Medicare overhaul but a challenge to Republicans to help lift up the very voters who rejected the party so decisively last month -- including the poor, minorities and the "47 percent." Next year, Ryan will try to transcend his austerity brand by moving beyond cuts and entitlements to push for a new war on poverty and new immigration measures -- though that may be difficult as the author of a Medicare plan that critics believe will hurt the poor most of all.
"Paul feels that a little Jack Kemp reinvigoration of the Republican Party would be healthy right now," an informal adviser said. "These issues may not have obvious political resonance in Republican primary politics, but Paul's always been told that. He's always been told that no one's interested in these ideas."
With fiscal issues dominating Capitol Hill, Ryan's job will keep him in the spotlight as he and his family ponder a future run. He has the national profile and practical experience that come with having run before. But he isn't certain that he wants to run. And he would have to build an organization largely from scratch. Spencer Zwick, who as Romney's finance guru ran the most successful part of the campaign, is now a free agent and will be courted by all the hopefuls.
Some top Republicans have speculated that Ryan might eventually leave Congress to avoid a series of problematic votes. And he has considered alternative career paths in the past: A few years ago, Ryan was approached about being part of a succession plan for Ed Feulner, who plans to retire soon -- after leading The Heritage Foundation for 35 years. But Ryan's friends now expect him to remain in Congress.
So Ryan is in a holding pattern -- a front-runner as long as he wants to be, or until competitors start raising money and building organizations.
Rubio's intentions are much clearer, and he has embarked on a very specific two-year plan to position himself for national office. Rubio's Senate chief of staff is Cesar Conda, an expert policy mechanic who worked in the George W. Bush White House as an economic adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Rubio made a quick trip to Iowa last month and made two stops in New Hampshire as a surrogate for the Romney campaign. In March, Rubio is likely to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the right wing's leading annual festival.
But Rubio plans little overt political travel and instead will work to build a legislative record. He is said by friends to be self-aware of his lack of Senate achievements and hates the notion of being the communicator, not the ideas guy. He also plans to work on ways to curb human sex trafficking.
His advisers calculate that he will be much better off getting something actually passed, even if it's small, rather than just talking. That will be hard because the Senate doesn't pass a lot and Republicans will be in an even smaller minority next year. But Rubio will be helped by a strong relationship with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), giving his proposals a better chance than most first-term senators would have -- though none of the ideas Rubio is promoting are the kind of groundbreaking legislation many in the party hunger for.
In the speech Tuesday night, Rubio will talk about ways to grow the economy and make creating jobs easier, reducing health care costs for middle-class families, the impact of societal breakdown, and giving people the skills to earn middle-class wages in the 21st century. That last point includes Tax Code reform; encouraging career, technical and vocational education; addressing the rising costs of college; and reforming federal loan and grant programs. He'll talk about his own experience with college loans and will say he just recently paid off his own.
Rubio suffered a bad break in July, when Obama announced a new administration policy benefiting young illegal immigrants, pre-empting a plan Rubio had spent months quietly selling to fellow Republican senators. Rubio's aides learned about Obama's shrewd move when it popped on The Associated Press wire. Their optimism about getting something passed evaporated instantly because they knew the internal Senate politics of the issue had turned against the senator. He has continued working with outside organizations focused on immigration and will try again next year, with narrow measures such as an effort to help high-tech workers and an agricultural guest-worker program.
Like Tuesday's speeches by Rubio and Ryan, it's small -- but the start of something much bigger.
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