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In veepstakes, does Rubio’s ‘no’ mean ‘no’?

Do Republicans believe Marco Rubio? While much of the political world has been obsessing over decisions by Chris Christie and Sarah Palin not to run for president, the freshman senator from Florida has been making a series of increasingly Shermanesque vows to turn down any offer to join a Republican ticket as a vice presidential candidate.

If Rubio sticks to his guns, it would be a crushing disappointment for many Republicans. At a recent GOP straw poll in Michigan, conducted just after the Republican debate in Orlando, Rubio was the solid winner in the vice presidential category, beating current presidential candidates (and eventual VP possibilities) Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.

Some commentators left and right virtually assume Rubio will be the man. Conservative columnist Dan Henninger of The Wall Street Journal calls Rubio “Mitt Romney’s probable running mate.” Liberal journalist Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker calls the Republican presidential race “the contest to be Marco Rubio’s running mate.”

The only problem? Rubio is not playing along. In a recent interview at the Washington Ideas Forum, Rubio was asked whether he “craves” a run for vice president. “I don’t crave it,” he responded. “I wanted to be a United States senator. I didn’t run for the Senate as an opportunity to have a launching pad for some other job.”

Nothing definite there; by Washington standards, that could mean Rubio was applying for the job. But then interviewer Major Garrett asked whether Rubio would turn down a spot on the Republican ticket if it were offered to him.

“Yeah, I believe so,” Rubio answered. “I’m not going to be the vice presidential nominee. I’m focused on my job right now, and the answer is going to probably be no.”

“Probably”? The moment the word came out of his mouth, Rubio seemed to realize he had just created a lot of wiggle room. So he quickly added, “The answer is going to be no. Let’s not say, ‘He left the door open.’”

And that was that. By the end of the interview, Rubio was on record saying he will turn down any offer to join the Republican presidential ticket.

In the past, Rubio has often said simply, “I’m not going to be the vice presidential nominee” or “I’m not going to be on a ticket in 2012.” Some have taken that to mean Rubio had no intention to join the ticket but that things could always change.

Then, in May, Rubio appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he said “I won’t consider” a vice presidential spot.

“So under no circumstances would you serve on a ticket in 2012?” moderator David Gregory asked.

“No, I’m not going to be on a ticket in 2012,” Rubio said.

“Under no circumstances?” Gregory asked again.

“Under no circumstances,” said Rubio.

Now, with Rubio’s “the answer is going to be no” statement, Republicans need to consider the possibility that Rubio’s answer is actually going to be no. So far, though, there’s no sign the presidential candidates have gotten the message.

“Sen. Rubio is a respected conservative from a big, important state and will certainly continue to be in the mix whether he wants to be or not,” says a spokesman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “From our standpoint, it’s too early to be discussing running mates, but Sen. Rubio is certainly an energetic conservative with a very bright future.”

Current GOP front-runner Mitt Romney also says it’s too early to talk vice presidential picks but calls Rubio a person “anyone would be proud to be associated with.”

There are plenty of other Republican vice presidential possibilities, among them Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and the two governors who declined to run for president, Christie and Indiana’s Mitch Daniels.

But Rubio, with his personal story, compelling speaking style and tea party credentials, will likely stay high on the list. And he could always change his mind. Yes, he would take some flak for it, but remember that some Republicans were begging Christie to run for president even after he said repeatedly he wasn’t ready for the job. A Rubio walkback wouldn’t be that hard.

On the other hand, the candidates know Rubio has time to wait. He just turned 40 this year and, if all goes well, can take his pick of campaigns in 2012, 2016, 2020, 2024 and 2028. But for the next Republican presidential nominee, the question is more timely: Does Rubio’s “no” really mean “no”?

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.