Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did not disappoint tonight, showing a fresher face and more dynamic brand of conservatism –- presented by a fresher and more dynamic face. He appeared relaxed and jovial throughout, hardly the stereotype of the angry Republican. Standing in front of the window was a helpful  framing — making him “fill up” the screen, if you will. As a TV communicator he did the best job of any State of the Union respondent I can recall. His delivery was briefly marred by grabbing for a swig of water, which depending on your view was either a “real moment” or a rookie error.

His story was, as we expected, told from an immigrant’s perspective. (“My parents immigrated here in pursuit of the opportunity to improve their life and give their children the chance at an even better one. They made it to the middle class, my dad working as a bartender and my mother as a cashier and a maid. I didn’t inherit any money from them. But I inherited something far better -– the real opportunity to accomplish my dreams.”) He is unquestionably an appealing person with a great story.

Rubio recoiled from the Obama government-centric vision of growth and job creation:

This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs.

And he used his roots to strengthen his middle-class appeal:

Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. 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. The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security. 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.

In choosing to focus on the contrast between President Obama’s government-centric approach and a conservative vision of opportunity, Rubio correctly gauged how much of the president’s speech would be one government program after another. He sure got this right: “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems, that the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.” 

He made the case against tax hikes, not from the vantage point of an investor but once again from the middle class. (“Economic growth is the best way to help the middle class. Unfortunately, our economy actually shrank during the last three months of 2012. But if we can get the economy to grow at just 4 percent a year, it would create millions of middle-class jobs. And it could reduce our deficits by almost 4 trillion dollars over the next decade. Tax increases can’t do this. Raising taxes won’t create private-sector jobs.”)

And Rubio took issue with the debt deniers: “The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending 1 trillion dollars more than it takes in every year. That’s why we need a balanced-budget amendment. The biggest obstacles to balancing the budget are programs where spending is already locked in. One of these programs, Medicare, is especially important to me. It provided my father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity. And it pays for the care my mother receives now. I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother. But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting it.”

Most impressive was his ability to explain why conservatives oppose liberal policies:

More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities.  It’s going to limit them. And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private-sector jobs. It’s going to create uncertainty. Because more government breeds complicated rules and laws that a small business can’t afford to follow. Because more government raises taxes on employers, who then pass the costs on to their employees through fewer hours, lower pay and even layoffs. And because many government programs that claim to help the middle class, often end up hurting them instead.

His critique of the president’s health-care plan was simple and effective: “For example, Obamacare was supposed to help middle-class Americans afford health insurance. But now, some people are losing the health insurance they were happy with. And because Obamacare created expensive requirements for companies with more than 50 employees, now many of these businesses aren’t hiring. Not only that; they’re being forced to lay people off and switch from full-time employees to part-time workers.”

In its place, Rubio offered a positive agenda aimed squarely at the middle class — domestic energy production, tax simplification, a lower corporate tax rate, education reform and immigration reform. On immigration he built up to the policy with a humanizing vision of parents wanting a better life for their children. He then offered: 

We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest. We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.

It was noteworthy that, although he echoed the president’s call for a 21st-century education, he declined to shovel more student aid and made a pitch to remodel and reform higher education.

Rubio’s speech was more substantive than many State of the Union responses, but plainly this was a showcase for him. He’s a charismatic figure, not unlike the president once was. He is young, but will on the national stage become more commanding. He can tell what conservatives believe in terms voters can understand. If the GOP can piggy-back on his personality and adopt his tone, it will be on the comeback trail. And he, tonight, no doubt began his 2016 presidential quest.