Marco Rubio emerges as GOP’s star. But is he the answer for Republicans?


Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a favorite of conservatives and an advocate for overhauling the nation's immigration laws, has been chosen to give the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Lately, it seems just about everyone is fascinated by the junior senator from Florida.

Time’s current cover proclaims Marco Rubio “The Republican Savior.” The Web site BuzzFeed last week solicited his views on immigration, climate change, gay rights — and the relative artistic merits of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. That test of his hip-hop fluency came after Rubio released a Spotify playlist of 16 songs he is listening to, generating a flood of instant analysis in the blogosphere.

Next up: On Tuesday night, Rubio will give the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address — in English and Spanish.

“He carries our party’s banner of freedom, opportunity and prosperity in a way few others can,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in announcing Rubio’s selection to deliver the rebuttal. Republican uber-strategist Karl Rove has called Rubio “the best communicator since Ronald Reagan.”

Rubio is indeed a politician of unusual gifts. But the spotlight that has fallen on this relatively new arrival to the national scene says as much about the state of the Republican Party as it does about the 41-year-old senator. And it remains to be seen whether he represents the solution to the GOP’s problems, or whether the party’s sky-high hopes in an untested newcomer are just another measure of its drift.

After the president delivers the State of the Union address, there are rebuttals from either Democrats or Republicans, and sometimes other parties. Take a look back at some of the most memorable State of the Union responses of the last 10 years. (Nicki Demarco/Sandi Moynihan /The Washington Post)

His appeal starts with the fact that Rubio embodies two demographic groups with which the GOP needs to connect: young people and Hispanics.

And he has been trying to add substance to his sizzle. Rubio, in the first high-profile tryout of his legislative skills, is taking a leading role in shaping an overhaul of immigration law.

He is part of a bipartisan group of eight senators who put together a carefully calibrated set of principles that include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million-plus immigrants in this country illegally. Rubio is the group’s point man tasked with selling that idea to the hard-liners on the right, who see it as heresy.

Rubio declined to be interviewed for this article. Aides explained that Rubio wants to dial things back a bit between now and the State of the Union response. When the Time cover appeared, he tweeted: “There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus.”

“Like most things in politics, we are keenly aware of how fleeting this all is and how most news hype is all sound and no fury,” said Rubio’s senior strategist, Todd Harris. “You run the risk of becoming overexposed and overserved, not to mention the fact you might screw up.”

Party divisions

Rubio’s new prominence also comes at a difficult time for his party. Schisms have developed within the GOP as it searches for a path out of the electoral badlands after two presidential defeats.

He is that rare Republican who is beloved by both the party establishment, which is focused on reaching out to centrist and independent voters, and by the anti-establishment insurgent forces who say the party has erred in not holding true to its most conservative principles.

The senator from Florida argues for both. Admirers often point to his 2011 declaration that “we don’t need new taxes. We need new taxpayers, people that are gainfully employed, making money and paying into the tax system.” It neatly skirted the charge, prosecuted to great effect by Democrats, that Republicans were simply favoring the rich.

“Marco Rubio has an unerring ear for how to frame a conservative argument,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Just listen to the way he frames an argument and you will hear a very different argument than we have heard in recent years.”

That is a quality people have seen in Rubio since the beginning of his political career.

“When I came back from my first session, I can remember saying, ‘He’s the pick of the litter.’ He really separated himself from his Republican colleagues,” said Dan Gelber, who was the Democratic minority leader in the Florida House of Representatives while Rubio was speaker. “He navigates nuance as well as anyone you’re going to meet in this world. He has very good political instincts.”

Rubio is a politician who has benefited greatly from the power of his personal story, though his reliance on his family narrative has sometimes created complications for him. During his rise to prominence, he defined himself as the son of political exiles forced off Cuba by the Castro regime. In 2011, The Washington Post and the St. Petersburg Times reported that his parents immigrated to the United States before Fidel Castro took power.

The revelation created a thunderclap of controversy. But Rubio — in a characteristic display of deftness — seems to have survived the fallout mostly unscathed by arguing that he simply mixed up some dates and that his parents were still exiles because they could not return to the island of their births.

His political history also explains Rubio’s special bond with the GOP’s tea party faction. A long shot to win the Republican Senate nomination in 2010, Rubio rallied the insurrectionary forces to drive the establishment pick, Gov. Charlie Crist, out of the race and the party. Crist ran instead as an independent and was crushed by Rubio in the general election.

Rubio has used his unusual media savvy to reach out to Americans who do not tune in to the traditional news and political outlets.

Not surprisingly, he is a popular guest on conservative and Spanish-language radio and television.

But he also appeared on Black Entertainment Television during the Republican National Convention last year. He had nice things to say about the Kardashians in an ambush interview with TMZ at Reagan National Airport in November. And after the New York Times wrote a lengthy story about Rubio’s football obsession, his staff decided it should start booking him more on sports channels as well.

Following the president

His selection to give the State of the Union response marks a departure for Republicans, who in recent years have turned more toward such technocratic and wonky figures as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.).

It can be a tricky assignment to follow the grandeur of a presidential address to all the assembled powers of Washington. Jindal’s tinny 2009 performance, for instance, was so widely panned that a Facebook group was set up comparing Jindal to the childlike, unsettlingly cheerful Kenneth character on the TV show “30 Rock.”

Meanwhile, Rubio’s future is the source of intense speculation in political circles. It was stoked when he headlined a political fundraiser in Iowa — site of the first 2016 presidential nomination contest — just days after the Republicans’ 2012 presidential defeat.

“From the time that Marco served as my Florida chairman during my presidential campaign, I felt that he was very much the future of our party,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, one of the earliest Republicans of national stature to back Rubio’s 2010 Senate bid. “I have said since I met him: ‘Keep your eye on this guy. He’ll be president someday.’ ”

And many are seeing parallels to another first-term senator who exploded onto the scene in 2004 and four years later won the White House. Like Rubio, Barack Obama was also touted as the answer to pretty much everything that had been wrong with his party.

“He’s doing his politics very deftly right now,” Obama strategist David Axelrod said of Rubio. But Axelrod noted that Obama tried to keep a low profile until after the 2006 midterm elections, knowing that “the political landscape is littered with [people who were] the political flavor of the month and the year in the past.”

When a fresh new face gets a lot of buzz early in the presidential cycle, “it is very rare that that person ends up being the nominee,” Axelrod said. “First it’s intriguing, it’s interesting, it’s exciting. Then you get touted, and everyone’s shooting at you.”

Rubio’s high profile on immigration, especially his advocacy of a path to citizenship for those who came to this country illegally, is already drawing fire.

Rubio has shifted on the issue. He took a tough line during his Senate campaign and for a while after being elected. He opposed the Dream Act, which would give an opportunity for citizenship to the children brought to this country illegally by their parents. He also made supportive comments about an Arizona law cracking down on those who could not produce proof they were authorized to be in the United States.

But by last year, he was working on his own version of the Dream Act. And he now argues that offering citizenship to illegal immigrants is the right thing to do — if the border is tightly secured and prohibitions on hiring undocumented workers are enforced.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has called Rubio “amazingly naive on this issue.” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly branded him “a moderate Republican,” which was not intended as a compliment.

Whether or not Rubio wins on that issue, or ultimately goes on to lead his party and his country, he is already making his mark.

“He’s a great talent, and it remains to be seen what the journey will be,” said veteran GOP strategist Ralph Reed, who now heads an evangelical organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “But he is going to play an indispensable role in getting the party to where it needs to be.”

Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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