The case for Rubio as the anti-Hillary

Sen. Marco Rubio.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Sen. Marco Rubio.

Conventional wisdom holds that Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential announcement on Monday will get washed away by all the coverage of Hillary Clinton's official launch a day ago.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.

In fact, the Florida Republican now has an opportunity to present himself as everything Clinton is not: a young, relatively little known political figure largely free of major scandal and other baggage who is running on a clear platform promising faster economic growth.

The timing will actually work to Rubio's great advantage, allowing him to show to Republican voters that he could in fact be the perfect foil to Clinton in a way that his friend, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, could not be. Bush's presence at the top of the GOP ticket, this argument holds, would largely neutralize the case that Clinton represents a tired political dynasty that should not get another shot at the White House.

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And the biggest knock on Clinton's rollout so far is that it is almost entirely devoid of substance. Her announcement video looks like something a slick consulting firm might put out to sell its services. The new "H" logo, with an arrow pointing right, reminds one of a hospital chain or perhaps a start-up airline. And the new HillaryClinton.com website is largely devoid of any substantive discussion of major issues.

It's early days for sure. But if your biggest problem is that people worry you lack any compelling rationale for your candidacy other than it's your time, wouldn't you want to lead with some more concrete ideas?

Rubio has already staked out some very different ground. He plans to run on a very specific sweeping tax reform proposal he introduced earlier this year with Utah Sen. Mike Lee. The proposal would eliminate levies on dividends and capital gains, end double taxation of profits earned by U.S. companies abroad and create two personal income tax rates of 15 percent and 35 percent.

Reform conservatives generally like Rubio's plan though more ardent supply-side tax cutters believe the personal side of the proposal is a mess. Despite the criticism, the plan plants an early flag for Rubio squarely in the most important ground of the 2016 campaign: How can the United States emerge from a period of slow growth and stagnant wages and rising economic inequality?

Clinton's launch video makes oblique references to Americans emerging from rough economic times while criticizing how the deck is still "stacked in favor of those at the top," a throwback line to Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" campaign in 2000.

The problem for Clinton is that she is very much one of those at the top, thanks to the millions she and her husband earned in book and speaking fees since they left the White House in 2001.

Beyond offering a sharp contrast to Clinton, Rubio has other advantages heading into the GOP primaries.

He fits very much into the mold of President Barack Obama in 2008, a young, first term senator who would shatter a racial barrier if elected president. Rubio is well-liked by deep-pocketed GOP donors who view him as a reliable conservative and not as radical or populist as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. He is also a far more compelling public speaker than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is also running in the establishment lane for the GOP nomination.

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Should Bush stumble in the early primary states, Rubio would be well-placed to move into the slot as a consensus, center-right candidate capable of winning a general election against Clinton given his youth and demographic appeal.

And it doesn't hurt that he hails from Florida, perhaps the key to the White House in 2016. Put Rubio on a ticket with Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Ohio Senator Rob Portman and Democrats would be looking at a formidable electoral college challenge.

None of this is to suggest that Rubio is the front runner for the GOP nomination or could necessarily beat Clinton in a general election. He could easily wilt under the blistering spotlight of a presidential campaign. And he could look outmatched in a debate, especially on issues of foreign policy, against a candidate as experienced and accomplished as the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state.

But to suggest that announcing just after Clinton is a disadvantage for Rubio is exactly wrong. He now has the perfect frame to present the case for his candidacy.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.