Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a favorite of conservatives and an advocate… (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.
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.”
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.