WASHINGTON -- Marco Rubio is back on the campaign trail.
For the first time in a year, Rubio stood in front of a crowd at a plumbing equipment warehouse in northern Virginia, a well-heeled part of the country that overwhelmingly supported him over Donald Trump during last year's Republican presidential primary.
But as Rubio emerged to stump for gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie with Christian rock music blaring, a protester grabbed the microphone from Gillespie and demanded an end to immigrant deportations. Rubio stood off to the edge, displaying no visible emotion as the crowd shouted and grabbed the protester's sign as she was escorted off stage.
"That was perfect, the timing, because I haven't given a campaign speech in about a year so I'm a little rusty, I needed some warmup time," Rubio said.
Rubio then began a speech that avoided certain hot-button social issues, like keeping Confederate statues in place that have galvanized some Republicans in certain parts of the country since Trump's election. Instead, he talked mostly about jobs, though he did wade into his signature issue, Latin America, as he referenced the violent MS-13 gang, a frequent Trump villain with roots in El Salvador.
"I don't want to get in the middle of all these fights ... but I got to say it, I come from a community that itself has been impacted by ... gang violence," Rubio said.
Staying out of intraparty fights while building goodwill across wide swaths of the Republican Party is Rubio's clear strategy heading into the 2018 elections, as the one-time and maybe-again presidential contender copes with a president who has low approval ratings and a resurgent GOP populist wing that is willing to cause trouble within the ranks.
Trump-inspired figures like Breitbart editor and former White House adviser Steve Bannon are engaging in open warfare with establishment-minded figures like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and two sitting Republican senators targeted by Bannon have already decided not to seek re-election in 2018.
But as Bannon and his disciples attack Republicans for failing to fully embrace Trump's populist-oriented message, Rubio has stayed largely out of the fray. Rubio doesn't have any plans to endorse Alabama Judge Roy Moore, a Republican running for an open U.S. Senate seat who once declared that a Muslim should never serve in Congress. And Rubio was also relatively mum on the decision by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, a harsh Trump critic, to retire after campaigning for him in Arizona less than two weeks before his announcement.
"I have disagreements with the White House and I have been able to address some of them privately and a couple of them more publicly, whether it was the initial response in Puerto Rico or some of the foreign policy issues in different parts of the world," Rubio said. "But my view is this: 95 percent of what is going to happen to me today, I cannot control. What I can control is how I react to what happens. And what I've chosen to do more than ever is focus like a laser on the things I can control and get done."
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and an ally of Bannon's, praised Rubio's work on Capitol Hill one year into his second term.
"He gets no criticisms from me," Meadows said. "Actually, we're working very closely on the child tax credit that he's working with Ivanka (Trump). I think he's doing a great job on that. I think he has an idea that it needs to be higher than what it is."
In the policy sphere, Rubio has worked closely with Trump on Latin American issues, getting the president to embrace tighter regulations on Cuba and speak forcefully about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.
But in the political sphere, Rubio plans to begin supporting a swath of Republicans in 2018 who span the ideological and geographic spectrum. Moderate Republicans like Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Breitbart-approved figures like Ohio state treasurer and 2018 Senate candidate Josh Mandel are all on Rubio's list.
"He's an in-demand surrogate. He's a compelling surrogate for young people and conservatives of all stripes," said Jordan Russell, a spokesman for Rubio's political committee that doles out help to Republican candidates. "When his schedule and time allows, he's going to help good conservative candidates. His primary focus is to help people that helped him."
The list of early names that Rubio plans to support in 2018 has a common theme: Curbelo, Mandel, South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem (who is running for governor), Florida state Rep. Mike Miller (who is challenging Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat) and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik are all under 50 years old, and all of them supported Rubio during his 2016 campaign. It's the kind of broad, national base that could pay dividends should Rubio seek the White House in the future.
Rubio is set on supporting Senate incumbents and hopefuls who helped him out in 2016, but the list of early names indicates that the type of Republicans that Rubio is going to support are young people like himself who have shown a propensity to effectively shape-shift their political ideology, much like Rubio did when he campaigned for the state Legislature as a moderate in Miami years ago.
"Marco Rubio is the conduit we have to get to President Trump," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Miami Republican and Trump opponent who was once Rubio's boss when he worked as an intern in her office. "He's got the president's ear on Cuba and Venezuela, two issues which I'm passionate about. He's been wonderful about Puerto Rican aid."
Rubio is in an advantageous position compared to some of his Senate GOP colleagues. He isn't on the ballot for another five years, and Bannon's forces are prepared to wage war against every sitting Republican senator up for re-election in 2018 with the exception of Ted Cruz of Texas, who, like Rubio, is a 46-year-old big-state senator with lingering presidential aspirations of his own.
And Rubio has experience playing the outsider game in Washington. His 2010 Senate campaign was not backed by McConnell, instead drawing support from the tea party movement, which led the McConnell-backed candidate, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, to run as an independent.
"I guess I just witnessed it a little bit earlier," Crist, now a Democratic congressman, said of the Republican Party's recent infighting. "I think that what the party's going through, it's difficult, and you're seeing more of a drift to the right versus the establishment-type thing, only I think it seems a little more harsh now."
Some within the party are still rankled by Rubio's decision to work with Democrats on a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, and Breitbart frequently refers to Rubio as a "pro-amnesty" Republican in its articles, though Rubio did recently write an op-ed for the site about increasing the federal child tax credit.
Rubio also has experience working with the more establishment-aligned wings of the party. McConnell begged him to run for re-election in 2016 amid a weak GOP field after Rubio lost the Republican presidential primary.
"We're doing everything we can to encourage him to run," McConnell said last year.
Rubio will have some time to build a potential presidential resume in the Senate, should he choose to run again. He won't be able to run with Trump in the White House until 2024 at the earliest, and will face re-election for a third term in 2022.
But some of his anti-Trump supporters are already yearning for a West Miamian in the White House, even with Trump up for re-election in 2020.
"I'll be glad to write in Marco Rubio's name this time," Ros-Lehtinen said.
And even among conservative Republicans, Rubio remains an important part of the party.
"I think he's a leader," Meadows said. "To suggest otherwise would be to ignore the obvious."
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