By JOHN DiSTASO, News Editor
BEDFORD – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, making his first visit in about two years to first-in the-nation primary state New Hampshire Friday, said the State Department’s refusal to act last year to designate as terrorists the group now holding young girls hostage in Nigeria is part of an “ongoing pattern of incompetence” by the Obama administration.
“Not just on foreign policy,” said the 42-year-old Republican freshman senator and potential 2016 presidential candidate, “but also on America’s role in the world when it comes to preserving basic human rights and human dignity.”
The tough words from Rubio came during an interview shortly after he arrived in the state for fund-raisers for the state and Rockingham County Republican committees in Bedford and at the Wentworth-by-the-Sea resort in New Castle, respectively. He also appeared at a Boston fund-raiser for Sen. Kelly Ayotte, for whom his Reclaim America PAC aired advertising last year defending her after she was criticized for a controversial vote against universal background checks for gun purchases.
Rubio is now expected to use some of his PAC’s warchest to help Republlican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown in the Granite State. Although he has not yet done so, he did say that Brown, who is in a GOP primary, would be the best Republican choice for the Senate from New Hampshire. His PAC has been involved in primaries in several other states.
Brushing aside Democratic criticism of his opposition to the minimum wage, Medicaid expansion and the Paycheck Fairness Act, Rubio, said the Democrats are recycling “old, 20th Century ideas that don’t work.”
And while he has not yet decided whether to run for President, Rubio said what one would expect a prospective candidate to say about the first-primary state.
“The great thing is that anytime you come to New Hampshire, because of its standing, and you speak about a message that I love to speak about anywhere in the country, it gets a lot more attention,” he said.
“It’s a state that has a special appreciation for the kind of limited government, free enterprise message that we’re trying to carry out.
When asked to share his decision-making process on whether to run for the presidency, Rubio talked about his parents coming to the United States from Cuba 58 years ago.
“While they never became rich or politically connected, they achieved the American dream. We owe everything to what this country made possible for us.
“And one of the things I have to think about before the end of this year and the early part of next year is that I have the opportunity potentially to run and serve this country in its highest office. And it’s something we’re going to think about carefully.”
He noted that “it’s a decision I’ll have to make either way because I’m also up for reelection in 2016.
“I am certainly interested in continuing to serve this country and doing everything I can to keep it the special country that made our lives possible.”
Rubio said whether his friend – and some say mentor – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush runs for President will have no bearing on his decision.
“I have tremendous admiration for him and we’re good friends,” said Rubio, “and I think he would be a very formidable candidate” if he runs.
“But I think when you decide to run for the office of the presidency of the United States, the leader of the free world, that’s a decision you make based on your own criteria, not on a decision anyone else is going to make, and I think if you asked him you’d get the same answer.”
Rubio said “I miss” the ability “to interact on a one-on-one basis” with his constituents, as he did when he held local and state offices in Florida.
He recalled knocking on doors while campaigning and meeting with “five people at a time, multiple times.
“So the chance to go to a place where that’s valued,” such as New Hampshire, he said, “where people don’t just want to watch you on television but want to talk to you about what they have on their minds, and what their opinions are, is something that I enjoy tremendously and this is a state that really puts a premium on that.”
Rubio clarified that his PAC formally engages in endorsements, and while there has yet to be a formal announcement about Brown, “he would be a tremendous senator. He has already been a tremendous senator.
“I know him personally and I’ve worked with him. Obviously the decision is up to the voters of New Hampshire but I think he gives Republicans here the best chance to win.”
Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the State Department’s initial refusal to designate as a terrorist organization Boko Harum, the group holding young Nigerian girls hostage, is an example of a larger foreign policy problem with the Obama administration.
“They are often more interested in what they are going to say than what they are going to do,” he said. “You’ve seen that on issues like Benghazi and in some respects, this case as well.”
He said he has been seeking to have human rights violators in Venezuela personally sanctioned.
“The official State Department statement last night was that the timing wasn’t right to do that,” Rubio said,. “I don’t’ believe there is ever a wrong time to sanction and shame human rights violators. And in the case of Boko Harum, I never thought there was a wrong time to do that as well.
“It’s part of an ongoing pattern of incompetence by this administration not just on foreign policy but also on America’s role in the world when it comes to preserving basic human rights and human dignity.
Rubio is also calling for “sector-wide sanctions” against Russia as it becomes increasingly provocative toward Ukraine.
He agrees with Obama’s sanctioning of what Rubio called “oligarchs who benefit from corruption and access to Vladimir Putin. But beyond that, we need to sanction, for example, their energy industry that depends on American technology.”
He called for sanctioning the Russian banking sector and defense industry, which has contracts with U.S. companies it depends on “to modernize their weapons systems.
“We have to do everything we can to change the cost-benefit analysis,” Rubio said.
He noted that the Chinese recently encroached on Vietnamese waters to build an oil rig.
“We are entering a very dangerous era in the history of the world where nations basically ignore the territorial rights of their neighbors and go in and do what they please. If we allow that to continue, without any consequences, we are going to enter a very unstable and dangerous moment,” he said.
Rubio said the NATO alliance has “lost its purpose since the end of the Cold War” and should be reinvigorated.
“Beyond that we need to pressure our allies to do more,” he said. “Virtually every country has cut back their expenditures on their own defense.”
At home, said Rubio, the U.S. is losing its ability to provide “upward mobility” to its citizen.
“It’s the ability to say to someone that no matter where you start out in life, if you’re willing to work hard, you can get ahead,” he said. “I think that ability is eroding for millions of Americans.
“Statistics now show that there are other countries where children born into poverty have a better chance of making it to the middle class than they do in America,” he said.
He said the Affordable Care Act “has taken 70-something percent of Americans who had health insurance that they were happy with, mainly through their employer, and disrupted it in exchange for a minute increase in the number of uninsured that are now insured.
“Reforms should have been focused on those who were uninsured and reforms that would have allowed those individuals to have access to pre-tax money that would have allowed them to buy what they needed from any company in America that would have sold it to them,” he said.
“There are more people being hurt by it than being helped by it, and this is not a theoretical issue to them. This is happening to them.
“I think it will a huge issue in the 2014 and 2016 campaigns,” Rubio said.
Rubio said the GOP’s principles are “proven” that “limited government and free enterprise equals opportunity and upward mobility. But the challenge is applying those principles to the unique challenges of the new century.
“Our policies need to change” so that struggling Americans believe the GOP “is the political movement in America that understands ‘what I’m going through and has concrete idea to help people like me.’”
The Democratic National Committee issued a memo ahead of Rubio’s appearances saying New Hampshire is “a state at odds with his extreme agenda.”
It cited his opposition to an increase in the minimum wage, which is popular in the state, and to Medicaid expansion as well as “policies important to women and families, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Violence Against Women Act.
The DNC said “it’s no surprise” Rubio has slipped in New Hampshire polling over the past year, from 15 to 2 percent.
“They think that helping people make $10.10-an-hour is the ticket to the middle class,” Rubio responded. “I think that’s absurd. I want people to make $30 an hour” by obtaining the “skills that makes that possible.
“The problem is that the Democratic Party is investing in a higher education monopoly that continues to graduate student with degrees that don’t lead to jobs,” he said.