Marco Rubio reply to State of the Union address: Can he meet expectations?

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida will deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union address. He carries on his back the hopes of a party that lost badly among Latino voters in the presidential race.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida speaks with The Associated Press in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 7. Mr. Rubio, a rising star in the GOP, will deliver the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union message on Tuesday.

Marco Rubio is the “it” man of the Republican Party.

The junior senator from Florida is Latino, young, articulate, and photogenic – and on Tuesday night, he will deliver the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) message. In a first, he will give the speech in both English and Spanish.

On his back, Senator Rubio carries the hopes of a party that lost badly among Latino voters in the presidential race, winning just 27 percent. But Rubio represents more than just outreach to America’s fastest-growing ethnic minority: He is, Republicans hope, a bridge to other minorities who also fled Mitt Romney in droves.

Just as important as Rubio’s face and name will be his tone. He is the new “compassionate conservative.”

Can the man Time magazine dubbed the “Republican savior” and a leading prospect for the 2016 presidential race possibly deliver on such high expectations? It will be tough. Rubio himself responded to the Time cover with a tweet: "There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus."

His quip projects a little humility – as well as faith (Roman Catholic), a Republican touchstone. But the pressure on him to score Tuesday night is still sky-high.

“He may not consider himself the savior, but he’s got to be the savior for at least one night,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the conservative CivicForumPAC.

Exactly what that means, even just being a “one-night savior,” is open to interpretation. In a way, Rubio has already scored a small victory by taking some attention away from Mr. Obama’s address. SOTU response speeches are typically an afterthought that gets little to no notice.

Usually, the best-case scenario is that such speechmakers don’t mess up. The worst case is they look foolish. In 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana was tapped to reply to Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress, right after his inauguration. Governor Jindal seemed perfect – a young, articulate minority (Indian-American) leader going up against the first black president. Instead, he was panned by even conservative pundits for both his words – “stale” rhetoric, said one – and his delivery, likened to Kenneth the page on the TV show “30 Rock.”

For Jindal, that episode remains a lingering negative as he reportedly considers his own 2016 presidential run. Contrast that with Obama’s national debut, his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, or even Rubio’s address at the 2012 Republican National Convention introducing Mr. Romney.

Last August, Rubio arguably gave the best speech of the whole Tampa, Fla., convention. He spoke from the heart while discussing his family’s immigrant roots in Cuba and making the case for conservative principles.

On Tuesday, Rubio is expected to do the same thing: get beyond the dysfunction and ideological differences of Washington and reach Americans at their kitchen tables. Clearly, immigration reform will be an important topic. He is the most-watched member of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” trying to work out a compromise. And he has already made a major concession by endorsing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which he used to call “code for amnesty.”

Certainly we will hear about his Cuban-immigrant parents, and their hard work and struggles to make it in America. This week’s Time profile describes a voice mail Rubio’s mother recently left him, asking him to treat those here illegally – los pobrecitos, the poor things – with compassion.

“They’re human beings just like us, and they came for the same reasons we came. To work. To improve their lives,” Oriales García Rubio said. “So please don’t mess with them.”

On an array of issues, Rubio will have to walk a fine line. He will be speaking for his party, not for himself. Once the darling of the tea party in his long-shot bid for the Senate in 2010, he now has one foot firmly planted in the Republican establishment. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky will deliver an informal “tea party response” to Obama’s State of the Union message, which could help position Rubio more in the mainstream.

Republicans know that one speech by a Latino senator can’t undo the damage of the last presidential campaign, which included talk of electric fences along the Mexican border and “self-deportation.” They also know that as a Cuban-American, Rubio does not have the automatic sympathy of the largest US Latino populations, Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

But they hope he can at least get voters to listen and help the GOP rebrand itself away from its image as a party of old white guys.

“Marco Rubio is one of our party’s most dynamic and inspiring leaders,” said House Speaker John Boehner in the statement announcing Rubio’s selection for the SOTU reply. “He carries our party’s banner of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity in a way few others can. His family’s story is a testament to the promise and greatness of America.”

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