Rubio takes center stage in response to Obama’s State of the Union address

Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night caps a blitz of publicity promoting him as the likable new face of a Republican Party desperate to expand its appeal to a more diverse audience.

Rubio has seemingly been everywhere in recent weeks: on the cover of Time magazine for a piece headlined “The Republican Savior”; talking hip hop, climate change, football and the military at a media event last week; joining the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” in pushing for immigration reform.

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In the process, he’s emerged at the vanguard of a new generation of GOP leadership: younger, sunnier, more diverse and more relatable.

The speech provides Rubio his biggest stage so far to introduce himself to the nation.

More broadly, it gives the GOP its largest audience since Election Day to rebrand itself as a party that can appeal to younger voters, Hispanics and unmarried women. Republicans endured electoral disaster with all those groups in 2012.

“Marco is one of the few people nationally who can very effectively transmit our time-tested principles in a way that resonates with the new demographics in America and all age groups,” said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, a friend of Rubio’s who gave him his first job out of law school.

Cardenas said Rubio was one of a few new GOP leaders who can “appeal to a broader audience without compromising our principles.”
Rubio’s deftness with words has drawn praise from all sides: Republican strategist Karl Rove has called Rubio “the best communicator since Ronald Reagan.”

He’ll be the first to ever deliver a State of the Union response in both English and Spanish, and he has been received warmly by both right-wing radio hosts and Spanish-language interviewers to talk about immigration.

But Republicans see other assets in Rubio. As evidenced by the buzz that followed him when he released a playlist on streaming music service Spotify and his detailed discussion of why he prefers Tupac Shakur to The Notorious B.I.G. as a rapper, he speaks modern culture as a first language.

That media savvy, say a number of Republicans, stands in stark contrast with the party’s last two nominees — Mitt Romney and John McCain — who hailed from an older generation and at times seemed tin-eared to the media and younger voters.
Rubio also comes from humble roots, unlike Romney and McCain.

“Republicans are coming back to the middle class, to language that isn’t as sharp, and you’re starting to see the next generation really start forward to put Romney, McCain and the Bush family in the past,”  GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said.

Rubio’s response to the Time article calling him a “Republican Savior” showed this deftness. Rubio tweeted: “There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus.”

Religious conservatives heralded the move, while others wondered if he was cleverly deflecting charges of self-aggrandizement.

Either way, the tweet stirred chatter, humanized him to various audiences and showed a humble side.

The prominent speaking slot Tuesday is a big opportunity for Rubio: three such past speakers later went on to become president.

But it also carries great risks. Four years ago, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) badly fumbled his national introduction to voters. His response to Obama’s first State of the Union was panned, hurting his presidential ambitions.

Rubio’s prominence has also made him an early target.

On Monday, the Democratic National Committee held a “pre-buttal” call to attack Rubio’s policy views, ripping him for supporting the Republican budget crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s 2012 running mate.

“What we are unlikely to hear from Sen. Rubio are new ideas, solutions or a willingness to work with Democrats and the president to find a balanced approach to strengthening our economy and getting our fiscal house in order,” DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said during the call.

There’s also the risk that overexposure could hurt Rubio if he enters the 2016 Republican presidential race. He’s getting so much coverage now that a fickle press and voting public might move on before the campaign truly begins.

“If you look at Jindal, there’s always a risk. It’s a singular moment, there’s a great focus on you. For Rubio, the expectations are extremely high,” said Mackowiak.

“But he has a very natural way of speaking that I think is very compelling.”

Those close to Rubio tell The Hill that his State of the Union response will echo many of the themes presented earlier this year in his speech to the Jack Kemp Foundation: a focus on upward mobility and growing the middle class, a discussion of his own family’s immigrant story and his middle-class upbringing to showcase the American Dream.

But he’ll be constrained somewhat by the speech’s nature.

Rubio’s not just speaking for himself but for the party as a whole. Advisers say that means the senator will just briefly touch on immigration, a key issue for him but one that doesn’t generate consensus within the party.

“It’s the Republican address, not the Rubio address. The focus is on the Republican Party’s agenda, not his personally,” said a source close to Rubio. “Immigration will be mentioned as one way to grow the economy but it won’t be the focus of the speech.”

Cardenas said Rubio’s speech was crucial to the GOP’s effort at rebuilding following the drubbing the party took in 2012 with all of the fast-growing demographic groups.

“If we’re going to survive with a chance to be a majority party in this country, we have to hope the results of 2012 were a floor [of support among minority groups],” he said.

Rubio has so far fed off the media spotlight, excelling nearly every time he’s been given a major appearance.

“The good news is the national stage has been set for him to become our most effective leader, to take on this administration,” Cardenas said.

“Now, obviously, comes the challenge: delivering on the expectations.”