In post-election vacuum, Rubio on rise within GOP
WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio is taking center stage as Republicans search for a new leader.
In the nearly 100 days since President Barack Obama won a second term, the Florida senator has made calculated, concrete steps to emerge as a next-generation leader of a rudderless party, put a 21st-century stamp on the conservative movement and potentially position himself for a presidential run.
The bilingual Cuban-American lawmaker has become Republicans’ point person on immigration and he pitches economic solutions for middle-class workers. He is an evangelist for a modern, inclusive party that welcomes more Hispanics and minorities, but says Republicans must stay true to their principles.
“In a way, he’s trying to save us from ourselves,” says Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union who gave Rubio his first job in politics, as a South Florida field staffer during Kansas Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “He gives us comfort against the naysayers who say we need to change our basic beliefs to attract a wider audience.”
Rubio will give the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday. Rubio advisers say his rebuttal will offer economic prescriptions for a sluggish economy and try to counter what they call Obama’s government-centered economic approach.
The speech comes as demand for the 41-year-old son of immigrants has soared and the party has tried to recover from significant electoral losses and map out a path ahead.
Call it the “it” factor. Time magazine just splashed Rubio on its cover, anointing him “The Republican Savior.” Rubio, a Catholic, responded on Twitter: “There is only one savior, and it is not me. (hash)Jesus”. He shrugged off the label during an interview with The Associated Press: “I didn’t write the cover. I wouldn’t have said it if I wrote it.”
“There are no saviors in politics,” he said.
The former Florida House speaker has been on a Republican rocket ship since 2010, when he knocked off Gov. Charlie Crist in a Senate race that showed the tea party’s clout.
His rise draws comparisons to Obama, who moved from Illinois senator-elect to Democratic presidential nominee within four years. Both win accolades for their oratory skills and sought a lower profile at the start of their Senate careers.
Rubio evokes a new generation for Republicans, as comfortable talking about hip-hop music as health care. In a recent interview with the online news organization BuzzFeed, he discussed at length the rap music of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., something that would have been unimaginable coming from Romney.