Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took his biggest step on to the national political stage on Tuesday, and it was hardly surprising to see him position himself as strongly opposed to President Obama’s policies.
His best move, though, was in his effort to distance himself from the man he replaces as the de facto standard-bearer for the Republican Party: Mitt Romney.
Rubio was very much focused on the party’s message during his speech, but he also used the opportunity to intersperse anecdotes about his own uniquely American experience and humble beginnings.
Rubio alluded to his parents’ immigration to the United States from Cuba, the fact that he still lives in “the same working class neighborhood I grew up in,” and the $100,000 in student loans he only recently paid off (he is 41 years old).
“My neighbors aren’t millionaires. They’re retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They’re workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They’re immigrants, who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy,” Rubio said, adding: “So, Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
This is key. A big reason Romney lost in 2012 was because of his inability to connect with the middle class, and the Obama campaign made great gains by painting Romney and the GOP as the party of the wealthy.
Rubio comes from essentially opposite circumstances. This, of course, is not news to anybody who knows Rubio; it’s a well-documented portion of his biography. But many viewers were introduced to Rubio for the first time on Tuesday, and many people who already knew him were judging him and his ability to take the next step toward a potential 2016 presidential run.
Where Rubio excelled was in his ability to weave his personal details into a core conservative message. Rubio didn’t dwell on these details, delivering an effective (and pretty strongly conservative) rebuttal to the president’s address as well. Rubio, after all, was speaking for his party and not himself, so the speech couldn’t be too personal.
In the end, Rubio’s otherwise strong delivery suffered from his momentary, awkward swig from a water bottle — it may be silly, but it will likely be on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, and that matters — but it seems doubtful that the stumble will overshadow his entire speech, as did an internet parody of Bobby Jindal’s 2009 response.
Absent that, what Republicans are left with was an effective response to Obama’s address. And for Rubio, he’s made a solid first impression with a lot of voters who had no or little idea who he was before tonight.