MIAMI — Marco Rubio resists being called the GOP “savior.”
But tonight, he’s the party’s chosen one.
The Florida senator was picked by Republican Party leaders to rebut President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address — and Rubio will do it in English and Spanish.
Rubio’s speech will be the first of its kind delivered in two languages.
That alone speaks volumes about Rubio’s key role in attracting Hispanics to the GOP and leading its immigration-reform efforts. It earned him a spot on the cover of Time magazine, which called him “the Republican Savior.”
“There is only one savior, and it’s not me,” Rubio responded on Twitter last week, closing his message with the hashtag “#Jesus.”
Democrats want to paint Rubio as an insincere opportunist in a party that doesn’t appeal to Hispanics on an array of policies, not just immigration.
Like Obama’s speech, Rubio’s will be wide-ranging. It won’t focus on immigration alone, and might only touch on the subject.
Rubio often tries to be counter-intuitive. The more pundits expect him to talk about immigration, the less inclined he’ll be to do it. He’ll try to present conservative ideas in a new-sounding way to appeal to the middle class.
Also, Rubio chafes at being typecast. He doesn’t want to be the token Hispanic, crusading for immigration reform. Yet he’ll use the issue to his advantage.
To party leaders, Rubio isn’t so much a savior as a Moses figure to lead them out of self-imposed electoral bondage when it comes to Hispanics, the electorate’s fastest-growing segment.
Many Hispanics have long been troubled by the tone as well as the policies of Republicans, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But now, a Miami-born son of immigrants will be talking to many of them in their native tongue.
Rubio’s English address will be live for the major English-speaking networks. His pre-recorded Spanish-language version will appear in Spanish-language media.
For Rubio, the road to the White House from his West Miami home detours along the 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Marco Rubio has a long way to go,” said Joel Benenson, Obama’s pollster.
As one of the eight senators hammering out a bipartisan immigration plan, Rubio has been the Republican salesman-in-chief, earning plaudits from longstanding immigration-reform opponents like Rush Limbaugh, the most influential commentator of the far right.
“The challenge for someone like Senator Rubio is that if people view his efforts as genuine, authentic and an act of true leadership and he’s really able to play a significant role, that’s one thing,” Benenson said.
“But if people view his efforts as a pattern of angling for political advantage — even on the issue of immigration where in the span of three years his position has gone back and forth and back and forth again he’s got some explaining to do,” Benenson said. “And that makes his position harder.”
Rubio wasn’t just tapped for the post due to his ethnicity and immigrant roots. Like Obama of a few years ago, he’s his party’s best speaker as well as its first minority senator who can command national media attention and mount a serious White House bid.
All of it inevitably fuels speculation about Rubio running for president in 2016.
Rubio is in a race to define who he is to a national audience before the opposition does. Tuesday’s speech, following his high-profile address at the Republican National Convention in August, is his latest opportunity.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed that, nationwide, Rubio is relatively unknown to about 57 percent of the electorate. But of all the big GOP names polled, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Romney-running mate Paul Ryan, only Rubio was viewed more favorably (27 percent) than unfavorably (15 percent).
That puts a political target on his back. Every changed position, every flip flop, will garner attention.
Democrats note, for instance, that his immigration stances have evolved on amnesty.
In 2010, for instance, he said during a Senate candidate debate on CNN that a “path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.” He wanted illegal immigrants to go back to their country of origin.
Now Rubio proposes a pathway to citizenship. He said it isn’t “blanket amnesty” because the undocumented would have to pay fines, back taxes and pass a criminal background check. Before getting a shot at citizenship, they would also have to wait until the borders are secure and then stand in line behind those immigrants who are legally here.
Rubio said he had to compromise. But he won’t when it comes to more border security: a “real” fence, drone surveillance and better computer tracking of immigrants.
“What I’m not open minded about is that it has to happen and it has to be real — because this is our last chance to get this right,” Rubio said.
Under the current immigration proposal, an independent group would verify that the border is secure. The particulars, though, are unclear.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said. “There are very legitimate concerns by people in my party. They’ve heard these promises before.”
If the legislation, which should be drafted by the end of March, doesn’t meet his standards, Rubio said he’ll oppose it.
The chances Rubio gets into specifics like that Tuesday night are slim.
If past rebuttals or State of the Union speeches are any guide, the words spoken Tuesday will have a short shelf life. The rebuttal given by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2009 was memorable for his awkward performance, not what he said.
Republicans expect far more of Rubio.
Scott Reed, a longtime Republican consultant and top strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Rubio’s decision to take on immigration reform two years after he won office shows his “very strategic” way of seizing on a big issue the right way.
“Rubio is focused. He’s not popping off on every issue, or running down to the floor of the Senate, making a fool out of himself,” Reed said.
“Still, this is a tricky forum for Rubio,” Reed said. “The president has the energy in the room, he’s in front of 535 members of Congress and the members of the Supreme Court,” Reed said. “Rubio won’t have that.”
But, on his current path, Rubio in four years has a good shot at standing where Obama will be tonight.