WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a breakout star of the 2010 election and a favorite of the tea party movement, kept a low profile during his first three months in the Senate. That's begun to change.
In a matter of days, Rubio, who vanquished former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the Senate last year and catapulted to fame in the Republican Party, has registered opposition to raising the federal debt ceiling in a high-profile newspaper opinion piece and called on lawmakers to authorize force to capture Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, garnered attention last year when he challenged Crist for Florida's open Senate seat and defied conventional wisdom by winning the Republican primary and fending off Crist's independent bid. His election created an intense following among tea party activists, who admired his calls to curb federal spending and stoked speculation of a future presidential bid.
The 39-year-old former Florida House speaker had followed a path forged by one-time senators President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — keep your head down when you reach the Senate, learn the ropes and don't make waves. But aides said Rubio felt compelled to speak his mind as the Senate moved closer to considering a plan to raise the federal debt ceiling, a move most conservatives oppose.
"When he first got to the Senate, there was a lot to absorb very quickly," said Todd Harris, a senior campaign strategist for Rubio. "At the same time, there was no way he was going to allow the fight over the debt limit to come and go without playing a key role."
The Treasury Department estimates the government will reach the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling sometime between April 15 and May 31, and the White House has warned that it could lead to a default on the national debt and harm the economy.
But in a Wall Street Journal article, Rubio wrote that he would vote against an increase in the debt limit unless "it is the last one we ever authorize" and it includes significant spending cuts, a balanced-budget amendment and reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
He also turned his attention to Libya, asking Senate leaders to advance a resolution authorizing Obama's move to join in military action in Libya. "As long as Gadhafi remains in power, he will be in a position to terrorize his own people and potentially the rest of the world," Rubio said.
When a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized the proposal, Rubio fired off a letter to Reid asking him to reconsider.
"I understand that reflexively attacking the ideas proposed by another member of the opposing party has sadly become the way of the modern Senate," Rubio wrote.
Rubio's Senate office receives about 200 speaking and meeting requests a week, but the senator has limited his public speaking engagements to Florida. He turned down invitations to speak at Republican dinners in Arizona, California and Colorado, a tea party gathering in Idaho and an event at Harvard University, said his Senate spokesman, Alex Burgos.
Rubio discussed the debt ceiling and federal spending Wednesday at a weekly meeting of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax group headed by Grover Norquist.
"He brings significant stature. The other thing is that he's one of four obvious vice presidential candidates, and he's that without having to campaign," Norquist said.
Rubio was to appear on "Fox News Sunday."