WASHINGTON - As Republicans search for a new leader, Marco Rubio is taking center stage before a national audience -- delivering the GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
In the nearly 100 days since President 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. He introduced presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention last year and attended dozens of rallies and fundraisers for the GOP ticket during the campaign.
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.
Like Obama did for the Democrats, 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.
Since November's pummeling, Rubio has taken a series of public and private steps to raise his already high profile and create the political, organizational and message framework he'd need should he decide to seek the White House.
On election night, Rubio promoted "upward mobility policies" and counseled Republicans to renew their pitch to people from minority and immigrant communities. He made a quick trip to Iowa in mid-November for GOP Gov. Terry Branstad's birthday party, which placed him before influential party activists in the important electoral state. Branstad lauded Rubio as the "kind of inspirational leader that's going to help point us in the right direction."
In December, Rubio said Republicans needed to attract voters from all economic backgrounds, invoking his late father, who worked as a hotel bartender. People like that are not "looking for a handout" but conditions to help them reach the middle class, Rubio said at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner.
Behind the scenes, Rubio has bolstered his political action committee, Reclaim America PAC, to help him raise money, elect fellow Republicans and essentially create a campaign-in-waiting. Terry Sullivan, a trusted aide with deep ties to the early primary state of South Carolina, has moved over to work full time at the organization, and Rubio hired Dorinda Moss, a leading GOP fundraiser, to be its finance director.
Rubio, who took hard-line positions on immigration policy such as branding Sen. John McCain's proposal in 2010 a form of amnesty, has shifted gears on the issue. He spent months meeting with different groups in the debate before releasing a set of principles with fellow senators that pairs increased border security with a possible path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
Mindful that "amnesty" remains a dirty word in the GOP and that many still flinch at immigration changes approved under President Ronald Reagan, Rubio courted conservative talk-radio hosts and news outlets to head off criticism. Early on, he won positive reviews from powerful conservative media personalities.
Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity offered praise for his approach. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh called Rubio's ideas "admirable and noteworthy," a tag line that could turn into a handy defense in a Republican primary.
Rubio has had detractors, too.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter said Rubio's plan would allow illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S., essentially jumping ahead of those who have waited in their own countries to immigrate to the U.S. legally. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, called Rubio "naive."
Indeed, the focus on immigration could be a boon or a bust for Rubio. If he rallies Republicans behind a plan that offers some resolution, he could be connected to a big legislative victory. But if the plan draws the wrath of Republican activists, it could hinder his ability to seek the big prize in 2016.
"I really believe that if I do the best job I can in the Senate," Rubio told BuzzFeed, "then in a couple of years I'll be in a position to make a decision about whether I want to run for re-election, leave politics and give someone else a shot or run for some other position."
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