Nation | Elections

Sen. Rubio's Response Gives GOP A Chance To Woo Hispanics

NPR | Feb. 12, 2013 5:44 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 12, 2013 8:10 a.m.

Contributed By:

David Welna

Republican leaders have tapped Marco Rubio, a 41-year-old Cuban-American senator from Florida, to deliver the official GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.

It is a chance for a party that’s fared badly with both young and Hispanic voters to showcase a fast-rising youthful Latino with a new stance on immigration.

In making the announcement on the GOP response, House Speaker John Boehner called Rubio “one of our party’s most dynamic and inspiring leaders.” Time magazine has Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, on its current cover, where it calls him “The Republican Savior.”

It’s not the first time Republicans have thrust the freshman Florida senator onto a national stage. It was Rubio who introduced GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney at the party’s convention in Tampa last August.

After Romney lost, Rubio spoke at a political dinner in Iowa, confirming to many he is eyeing the 2016 presidential race. Just last week, he was interviewed before a crowd of 20-somethings at a Washington bar by the news and gossip website Buzzfeed — about his favorite rapper. He said, with “apologies to all the Biggie fans,” that it was Tupac.

Those who know Rubio say watch out for him; it’s not just Republicans.

“Folks in my party that underestimate Marco Rubio do so at their own peril,” says Florida Democratic political consultant Steve Schale.

Schale has known Rubio since the Republican was speaker of Florida’s House. Schale is not surprised that Rubio has jumped ahead of many Republicans on immigration reform.

“He’s a pretty bright guy,” Schale says, “I think he understands the risk he’s taking here, but he’s also ambitious, and I’m sure he’s made the calculation that in the long run, this is the right place to be.”

Just three years ago, when Rubio was a Tea Party-backed challenger to former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP senate primary, he declared in a Fox News debate that it would be wrong to grant citizenship to people in the country illegally.

“The reason why I think it’s wrong is that if you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do, in any form,” he said, “… you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America.”

And yet, just two weeks ago on the Senate floor, Rubio explained the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that he and a bipartisan group of senators have outlined.

“Once you have a green card, depending on how you got it, you will have to wait about five years before you can even apply for citizenship,” he said.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., says he would normally not support any path to citizenship. But with Rubio, he’s willing to cut some slack.

“He is so knowledgeable about this issue,” Chambliss said. “I’m glad to see somebody with his background step forward and say it’s important and we need to look at it.”

Latino voting expert Lisa Garcia Bedolla at the University of California, Berkeley, says what it’s really about is the Republican Party’s appeal to Hispanic voters.

“I do think it’s important from a symbolic standpoint, both that they selected Sen. Rubio and that he’s giving the speech in Spanish and English,” Garcia Bedolla says.

The problem, says Garcia Bedolla, is that Rubio still seems out of step with most Latinos, even on immigration. Rubio himself contends that what Latinos really want is free enterprise and limited government. It’s a message Rubio will likely repeat Tuesday night, in English and Spanish.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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