Sen. Marco Rubio, in a matter of days, leapfrogged from being one of Mitt Romney's reliable foot soldiers on the campaign trail to being a front-runner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Republicans are saying that the combination of his conservative credentials, his charisma on the stump, his compelling life story and the nation's rapidly changing demographics make him a force to be reckoned with as the party picks up the pieces from this month's electoral setback.
The 41-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, already a rising star within Republican ranks after his election to the Senate in 2010, came out of the Nov. 6 vote in an even stronger position than when he went in, thanks to the spotlight Mr. Romney's loss has trained on the party's failure to attract young and Hispanics voters this year.
"Marco was a favorite of the conservative movement before we woke up to the realization that we are at a great disadvantage because the demographics of America is changing," said Al Cardenas, a fellow Floridian and chairman of the American Conservative Union. "Now that we have woken up to that reality, there is even a great urgency to consider his potential nomination."
The speculation about a presidential run by Mr. Rubio cranked into warp speed just a couple of weeks later when he became the first of the potential GOP standard-bearers to make the post-election trek to Iowa, home to the first-in-the nation caucuses for the 2016 presidential race.
For his part, Mr. Rubio, who served as the speaker of the Florida House before winning his Senate seat, coyly denied the visit had nothing to do with the 2016 election and said in his remarks at Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's Nov. 17 birthday fundraiser that he wanted to confront the "elephant in the room" head on.
"So let me be clear: I am not now, nor will I ever be a candidate for offensive coordinator of Iowa," Mr. Rubio quipped.
Reviving the GOP
Jokes aside, conservatives started trumpeting the notion that Mr. Rubio could be key to reversing the party's fortunes — particularly among Hispanics — even before the dust had settled from the Nov. 6 election.
"If there's a winner tonight, it's the senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, because all eyes are now going to be turned to him as a man who might have a way to broaden the demographic appeal of this party," conservative columnist George Will said as ABC News showed pro-Obama crowds dancing and cheering in Chicago the night Mr. Obama won a second term.
Mr. Rubio's pivotal role in the party was on display in Washington on Tuesday, as two senior Republican senators announced plans to introduce an immigration reform bill — and made sure to let reporters know they had run their plan by the junior senator from Florida. In what is potentially one of the big early legislative battles of President Obama's second term, all sides are waiting as Mr. Rubio puts the finishing touches on his own version of immigration reform.
Mr. Rubio's Iowa visit also attracted outsized attention for the political handicappers.
David Yepsen, former Des Moines Register reporter and current director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said Mr. Rubio is "not coming to Iowa in November for the weather."
After a low-key first year in the Senate, Mr. Rubio has assumed a more prominent role in legislative debates. He spelled out his opposition to raising the nation's borrowing limit, pushed a proposal that would have allowed business with religious or moral objections to be able to opt out of President Obama's health insurance mandate that covers contraceptive care, and called on his party to embrace the thorny issue of immigration reform.
Mr. Rubio released his memoir, "An American Son," and was widely considered to be on the short list of potential running mates for Mr. Romney. He didn't get the nod, but he delivered a well-received speech at the Republican National Convention.
The presidential exit polls immediately shifted the attention back to Mr. Rubio, as Mr. Obama steamrolled Mr. Romney among Hispanics and young voters, while Mr. Romney outperformed Mr. Obama by smaller margins among white voters and those older than 65.
Mr. Cardenas, though, warned that the party must be careful not to "pigeonhole" Mr. Rubio "into a demographic need."
"If we do that, we are really diminishing his appeal to a broader electorate, and that would be unfair to him," he said.
"Rubio's attractiveness as a candidate and as a conservative leader is anchored in his support for conservative principles, not his ethnicity," said Morton Blackwell, one of Virginia's two Republican National Committee members.
"The Lord did not give all talents to everybody, but he certainty gave a double-helping of charisma to Marco Rubio."
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