Amid growing criticism of his poor attendance record, Sen. Marco Rubio on Monday scrapped an evening fundraiser in the Florida Keys so he could attend a closed-door Capitol Hill briefing on North Korea’s latest belligerence.
The move was a sign that, despite his team’s steadfast insistence that voters don’t care about Rubio’s absenteeism, advisers were starting to consider the mounting questions that could erode support.
After CNN reported that Rubio was missing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee session on Kim Jong Un’s behavior, Rubio’s aides told TIME that the Senator would be there. Rubio is now also scheduled to meet with the King of Jordan on Tuesday, attend President Obama’s final State of the Union speech (as previously scheduled) and vote on a measure that would audit the Federal Reserve.
Monday’s about-face comes just a month before Iowa and New Hampshire kick-off the GOP’s nominating calendar. Although it is not that important on its own, the change will be another reminder of critics’ argument that he’s skipping out on his taxpayer-funded day job for his own ambition.
One super PAC backing Jeb Bush is running an ad suggesting that Rubio is chasing the White House and shirking his day job in the Senate. “Days after the Paris attacks, Senators came together for a top-secret briefing on the terrorist threat. Marco Rubio was missing, fundraising in California instead,” the narrator in that ad says. A second ad says “Washington politician Marco Rubio: doesn’t show up for work but wants a promotion.” On Monday night, he made a point of showing up.
Rubio missed at least 12 classified Senate Intelligence Committee briefings in 2015, at least 40 committee or subcommittee hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and attended just two full committee hearings of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship since 2013.
For Rubio’s rivals, it’s not just that he has the worst attendance record in the Senate, which he did in 2015. Instead, it’s part of a broader argument that Rubio is a lightweight who cares more about his personal ambition than taking care of his constituents. And his record has already given his critics plenty of material to piece together negative ads and fuel whisper campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Rubio campaign has long said it’s not fazed by the critique. Aides say if they thought the attendance attacks would stick, they would have adjusted his schedule to spend more time in Washington. They contended the events he missed were mostly for show: votes on bills that were never going to become law, committee hearings designed to embarrass Democrats, subcommittee hearings arranged to push a lawmaker’s pet idea.
“Usually it means you’re doing well if someone is trying to pull you down,” Rubio told reporters late last week in Nashua, New Hampshire.
But, tellingly, Rubio was jetting back to Washington on Monday to hear the latest coming from Pyongyang. He was trading the Card Sound Golf Club in Ocean Reef, Florida, for a secure briefing room for in the Capitol Visitor Center. Ahead of his flight, Rubio did attend an event in Sarasota, Florida, where a woman told him: “Quite frankly, I feel like you’ve given up doing it as a Senator, so how can you do it as a President?”
His rivals point to focus group and polling research that they say shows the missed votes attacks can work.
“In terms of potency, I don’t think it’s ever a final nail in the coffin, but as we saw in 2014 Senate races, it builds into an established narrative,” said an official with Right to Rise, the pro-Bush super PAC. “I think, with Rubio, it builds into irresponsibility, his ambition, how he’s jumping from one job to the next. Also credibility: he claims he’s a foreign policy expert but doesn’t actually show up to the committee hearings that he’s on. And in terms of potency, it certainly has had an effect in all of our research, both in focus groups and polling.”
The attack ads are clearly breaking through. Even a Rubio supporter last week essentially asked the candidate to help her refute her neighbors’ arguments on the subject.
“A lot of ads have been playing and they’re saying how you’re not voting. I want to know: What is it that you want to tell us about why it is you’re not voting on those things? Some of them are pretty big issues,” she asked during an event in Bedford, New Hampshire.
Rubio had his answer ready. “When you run for President, there are votes that you’re going to miss,” he said. “When I’m not in Washington, I’m running for President so that we can have a President who is serious about this stuff, not just these show votes.”
While voters are aware of the questions, they don’t seem consumed by them.
Take Bill Howell, a 59-year-old resident of Stratham, New Hampshire, who is considering casting his ballot on Feb. 9 for Rubio but is still weighing a vote for Christie or Bush. He has been watching Bush make the case that Rubio should either be in the Senate or run for President, but worries that Bush wasn’t making a good case. “I kind of thought Governor Bush was very ineffective in making that point. That’s one of the concerns I have about Governor Bush. He doesn’t have the same ability to articulate his message or to think on his feet,” Howell said after a recent Rubio stop at the Old Salt, a restaurant and pub in Hampton, New Hampshire.
Bush isn’t the only one making the argument.
“The truant officer is out looking for him,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “There’s no doubt about it. And here’s my thing with that. I understand he’s running for President, he’s not gonna’ be there every day. I get that. I’m not in New Jersey every day. He’s not gonna’ be there every day when you’re running for President. But when the big things happen, like a $1.15 trillion budget vote and you say you’re against it, show up to speak against it and vote. That would be like me this week not showing up for the State of the State.”
The Christie campaign has been dogged by its candidate’s own absences from his state. He was gone from his state all or part of more than 220 days last year. Advisers contend that Christie’s criticism is targeted not at the missed votes, but at the mismatch between Rubio’s rhetoric and actions. It’s tough to be a leader if you never show up, they argue.
In December, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has maintained a strong attendance record while on the campaign trail, called on Rubio to resign his seat over his absences. Bush, too, has echoed that sentiment. Bush, a one-time mentor, is a current Rubio constituent, and attempted to open the line of attack on the debate stage in Denver in October, only to find a more nimble Rubio turn the attack back on him. “You should be showing up to work,” Bush sniped. Rubio, the nimble campaigner, had his retort ready: “The only reason you’re complaining about mine is because somebody … has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
Heading into the final month of campaigning, it’s clear Rubio is getting piled-on, often using the same talking points. Rubio, a skilled campaigner, has his counterpunch ready and touts his membership on the Senate intelligence committee. “If you take all the other candidates, as Republicans, and put them together no one has had more intelligence briefings over the last five years that I have—if you combine all of the other candidates,” he said.
But in an era when voters are looking for someone who is an outsider, bragging about your elite intelligence briefings while skipping others to fundraise is a tricky case to make. That is why Rubio decided he shouldn’t skip Monday’s session