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Team of rivals: Rand and Rubio jockey for '16 spotlight


They both were elected in 2010 under the Tea Party banner after beating primary opponents favored by the Republican establishment. They’re both rising stars in the modern GOP, and, last weekend, they finished first and second place in a straw poll of conservatives’ pick of a presidential nominee for 2016.

And as they both maneuver to mount their own campaigns that year – or, at least, preserve the option of doing so – Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., must share the spotlight. Intentionally or not, they’re already jockeying to do so.

Both senators have carefully worked to build their national profiles following the 2012 election, using high-profile opportunities to plot slightly different paths toward the same goal.

On no issue is that more apparent than immigration.

Rubio had joined with three other Senate Republicans and four Senate Democrats in recent months to forge a bipartisan framework on a comprehensive overhaul to immigration laws that would provide undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. The Florida senator embarked on a media tour in the weeks following the framework’s unveiling to sell the plan to skeptical conservatives, doing the legwork to build political cover for the plan (and gain valuable exposure to the Republican base in the meanwhile).

Sen. Rand Paul explains portions of his immigration reform plan on Tuesday while speaking at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Legislative Summit.

Paul made clear with a speech on Tuesday – in which he unveiled his own plan creating an eventual pathway to citizenship – that Rubio isn’t the only GOP player on the issue. 

“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution,” Paul told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I am here today to begin that conversation.” 

Both Paul and Rubio might support the broader goal of immigration reform; they both took strides to carve out public roles for themselves in the process. 

For her part, Rubio ally Ana Navarro said the notion of a rivalry between the two men was “overblown by the media.” 

“Rand Paul is a leader in the Republican Party, and he should add his voice to the debate on immigration. His voice can and does make a difference,” she said. “The bottom line is, this is not an issue Marco or any one senator individually can or should carry alone on his shoulders. The more people helping to carry the ball, the more likely we will cross the finish line.” 

But while the two senators might not share a formal rivalry, they are undoubtedly two of the GOP’s biggest stars right now whose utterances alone command attention.

Look no further than last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where Paul and Rubio finished first and second, respectively, in the gathering’s closely-watched straw poll. A quarter of straw poll participants supported Paul and 23 percent threw their support behind Rubio. (The two gave back-to-back speeches on Thursday at CPAC.) The next closest finisher in the straw poll checked in at 7 percent.

The close finish between the two senators reflects all the work beyond immigration they’ve each done to burnish their profiles in 2013.

Republican leaders, of course, tapped Rubio to deliver their official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address – a speech that was generally well received for its content, if ridiculed for the Florida senator’s awkward pause for a swig of bottled water.

Delivering the official Tea Party response to the State of the Union that very evening? None other than Paul.

Sen. Marco Rubio talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres during Rubio's trip to Israel.

Rubio has also built up his foreign policy credentials by taking a trip in February to Israel and Jordan, and delivering major policy addresses (including one about that trip abroad).

Paul, meanwhile, drew considerable attention for his filibuster of Obama’s nominee to head the CIA on March 6, a 13-hour affair that won him praise from fellow Republicans. (Rubio at one point appeared on the Senate floor to deliver his own remarks in favor of Paul’s efforts.)

"Rand has made progress with the filibuster," said Dave Carney, the chief strategist for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign and a political consultant based in the influential primary state of New Hampshire. "Neither one has huge advantage here as of now."

Both senators are undeniably positioning themselves with 2016 in mind. Paul is at least open about that, acknowledging his potential interest in seeking the Republican nomination (like his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas) in several interviews. The Iowa GOP on Tuesday announced that Paul would headline their Lincoln Day dinner, further stoking speculation.

Rubio’s team is quicker to downplay the Florida senator’s ambitions, dismissing any talk of a presidential campaign as far too premature, just a few months removed from the last campaign.

But as each of them jockey for pole position heading into 2016, it may fall to the differences between Rubio and Paul to distinguish themselves from each other. For starters, Paul tends to emphasize a more libertarian and cautious foreign policy, while Rubio has generally been more willing to strike hawkish tones.

Both senators’ CPAC speeches are also instructive in parsing out how they make their pitch to conservatives.

Paul made a firm appeal, for instance, to revolutionize the Republican Party, and return the GOP to its small-government, libertarian roots.

“They want leaders that won't feed them a line of crap or sell them short. They aren't afraid of individual liberty,” he said of the new generation of young conservatives, calling the current GOP establishment “stale and moss-covered.”

Rubio, by contrast, emphasized his own biography as the son of immigrants, and stressed aspirational tone in his speech to CPAC.

“We don’t need a new idea, the idea is America, and it still works,” the Florida senator said.