Rubio reaches for water – and now he's putting out fires

Rubio reaches for water during his State of the Union response Tuesday, but in the wake of the gaffe, the Florida senator has been displaying at least one critical political skill: good damage control.

AP
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio takes a sip of water during his Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address, Tuesday night, in Washington, D.C.

Talk about turning water into wine. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – whose awkward sip of water in the middle of his State of the Union response has become an Internet sensation – has moved quickly to show he's in on the joke. In a round of interviews on the network morning shows, Senator Rubio, who was recently lauded as the "Republican savior" on the cover of Time magazine, displayed the kind of self-deprecating humor and relatability that voters often appreciate in politicians.

"I needed water, what am I gonna do?" Rubio said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, as he good-naturedly took another big swig for the cameras. "You know, it happens. God has a funny way of reminding us we're human."

Rubio's official response to President Obama's speech had been seen as an audition of sorts, with the young, Hispanic senator poised to become the new face of the Republican Party. But in many ways it wound up testing an even more important skill that all presidential aspirants must master: damage control. 

"Water-gate," as the incident was inevitably dubbed, lasted only a second or two. If you somehow missed it, here's what happened: a visibly sweating Rubio, in the middle of delivering his response, suddenly ducked down almost out of the camera frame, grabbed a water bottle, and took a hasty sip. He then continued on with his speech, but at that point the damage was done. 

It was a made-for-Twitter moment, instantly generating an explosion of snarky comments (we had no idea there could be so many water-related puns). For better or worse, depending on your point of view, it wound up entirely overshadowing the rest of Rubio's remarks – and to some extent even the president's.

Still, there are some lessons to be learned from the matter:

1. As had been widely noted in advance of Rubio's speech, giving the official response to the State of the Union just may be the hardest political gig out there. The speaker has no audience and no podium. He must speak directly, and continuously, into the camera, and somehow make it look natural. We thought Rubio came across as pretty conversational, if not always completely comfortable. Talking openly about his own humble roots and lack of wealth, in the context of advocating basic Republican planks such as smaller government and lower taxes, he probably would have gotten decent reviews had "water-gate" not happened. Of course, now that's water under the bridge (sorry – we couldn't resist!).

2. The glare of the spotlight is not kind – to anyone. Rubio has had a meteoric rise in Washington, and is already seen by many as the unofficial frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But that kind of star power brings a whole new level of scrutiny, which few politicians can withstand without losing at least some of their original shine. It's not necessarily an advantage to become so highly visible so early in the cycle, given that the first primary contests are still three years away. When you're in that position, every little thing – even a sip of water – can unexpectedly turn into a fire that needs dousing (ok, ok, no more puns!).  

3. Staffing matters. It's understandable that Rubio's staffers never imagined he'd do something as odd as crouch down to grab a bottle of water in the middle of delivering his speech, but a good staff should be prepared for any contingency. In hindsight, Rubio should have had water pre-positioned within easy reach. On the other hand, his team has been fast making up for the lapse. Immediately after the speech, Rubio tweeted out a picture of the infamous Poland Spring water bottle, with the hashtag #GOPResponse. And he continued to joke about it in a round of high-profile TV interviews Wednesday.

In the end, it was not the roll-out that Rubio likely envisioned for himself. The substance of his remarks wound up overlooked, and the most lasting impression he may have left was one of nerves. But there are worse things in politics than coming across as occasionally-less-than-smooth (at least he didn't pull a Rick Perry, and blank out!). In the end, if this winds up being the biggest gaffe of Rubio's political career, he can count himself lucky. 

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