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Rubio's rise: GOP star returns to the spotlight with response to Obama


Marco Rubio’s rise within the Republican Party, just two years since his election to the Senate, has played out at head-spinning speed.

The 41-year-old, Cuban-American junior senator from Florida, has carefully navigated a choppy political environment in the two years since he was first elected.

And now the Republican rock star gets his moment in the spotlight when he delivers the official response to the State of the Union address delivered minutes earlier by President Barack Obama – another political rock star whose meteoric ascent invites inevitable parallels for Rubio.

Virtually every step of Rubio’s budding career has been scrutinized closely for what it might mean for his future political prospects. And after maintaining a deliberately low profile for much of his first 24 months as a senator, Rubio has begun to embrace the spotlight, including Tuesday’s coveted job of delivering the official Republican response to the president.

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Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the BuzzFeed Brews newsmaker event in Washington on Feb. 5, 2013.

The intense focus on Rubio reflects the speed of his ascendancy within the Republican Party, an institution in search of a new, compelling leader after losing two consecutive presidential elections by wide margins.

The State of the Union response is generally sought by political leaders hoping to increase their national profile, even though the slot is more often fraught with the risk of political misfortune.

“Marco has to articulate a clear and optimistic vision for growth in America but at the same time present a clear alternative to President Obama's call for a big, centralized government,” said Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican strategist.

But accomplishing that goal could be difficult, even for a well-spoken politician like Rubio.

“It's an opportunity to be seen and heard by the nation but you run the risk that if you bomb, it'll be on your tombstone,” Navarro said. “Marco is an eloquent speaker, an extraordinary orator. But this is the toughest gig in politics, by far. Following the president of the United States at the [State of the Union], which is full of pomp, circumstance and tradition, it's not an easy task.”

Rubio’s importance to the Republican Party is practically assumed at this point. When reports emerged in June that suggested Rubio had been left off Mitt Romney’s short-list of running mates, the GOP presidential nominee had to hastily stage a statement to declare that the Florida senator was being “thoroughly vetted” for the job.

Now, the Floridian has a chance to add another notch his burgeoning political belt.

Rubio has most recently shouldered the burden of selling a comprehensive immigration reform framework – which he helped craft as a member of a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senatorial group – to skeptical conservatives.

He has made the rounds on conservative talk radio to talk-up the plan, which includes a proposal to give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. A similar plan earned President George W. Bush a rebuke from the right. But many of those same critics are now praising Rubio for his work, even if they haven't endorsed the proposal.

Rubio is expected to address immigration in his State of the Union response, but as part of a broader discussion about growing the economy and helping the middle class, according to an aide to the senator.

"He’ll explain why President Obama’s call for big government is bad for the middle class, and why limited but effective government will grow our economy and create jobs," the aide said.

Democrats are casting Rubio’s expected speech as little more than a rehash of staid Republican proposals.

“While the president will offer new ideas and an agenda for the next year to continue to grow our economy and broaden opportunity for the middle class, Sen. Rubio and the Republican Party – despite their desire to learn to be a ‘happy’ party that just needs to smile more – will continue to offer Americans more of the same failed policies that were rejected by the American people last November,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

The Gaggle debates if Sen. Marco Rubio is the answer to the GOP's problems.

Indeed, part of Rubio’s task involves advancing a broader Republican effort to make the party more appealing to a changing electorate, especially after Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic or Latino vote in his re-election bid last fall.

Rubio’s popularity in Republican circles is undoubtedly tied to his status as one of the most prominent elected Latino officials in either party. Rubio is writing the remarks himself, per his aide, and will deliver them in both English and Spanish – the first time the same person has delivered the official response in both languages.

(Rubio will tape the Spanish-language version beforehand, and deliver the English version live on national television.)

Still, Rubio’s rise – and, with it, the speculation about whether he’ll run for president in 2016 – comes well before the next election. There are plenty of pitfalls and challenges to sustaining momentum awaiting the Florida senator in the next few years.

But a scant two years of federal experience hasn't always been a limitation when a politician is eyeing the presidency a full four years out from the next election. Just ask Barack Obama.