The tea party, at its highest levels, is not ready to bestow its unquestioning love on one of the two Republican responders to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Mr. Rubio is delivering the GOP's official response to President Obama, while Mr. Paul is delivering a response sponsored by the Tea Party Express.
"Both Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, from our standpoint, are elected officials who are fighting for tea party values of fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government," Jenny Beth Martin, cofounder of the national Tea Party Patriots, told The Washington Times.
However, the Republican Party leadership’s choice of Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, to deliver the official response marks him in the eyes of many fellow Republicans as the establishment’s chosen spokesman, and as such, acceptable as the 2016 presidential nominee if he decides to go for it.
Whether that official seal of approval for the man Time magazine put on its cover as the "The Republican Savior" is more helpful than harmful to his political aspirations is questionable.
"Whether fair or not, the party's choosing Rubio to give the official response makes him look like the establishment candidate and Paul as the guy who will stand up to his own party," said former GOP Virginia assemblyman and former state GOP chairman Jeff Frederick.
Mr. Paul unofficially launched his 2016 nomination bid with a visit to Israel last month in the company of some 40 American evangelicals and several prominent Jewish Americans — with private side excursions by Mr. Paul to Jordan and Palestine.
For those closely monitoring his actions, it was no surprise that he elected to give what he calls his own "tea party" response to the president — or that he doesn't explicitly deny that his move is an intentional clash with Rubio.
Mr. Paul, however, doesn't view his speech as competing with Mr. Rubio but rather "as an extra response."
Yet Mr. Paul doesn't explicitly say his speech isn't intended to draw contrasts with Mr. Rubio on a variety of hot issues, from immigration to foreign aid.
"I don't see it necessarily divisive," he said. "You know I won't say anything on there that necessarily is like Marco Rubio is wrong ... this isn't about him and me. This is about the tea party, which is a grassroots movement, a real movement with millions of Americans who are still concerned about some of the deal making that goes on in Washington, they're still concerned about the fact that we are borrowing $50,000 a second."
Further bonding himself to the anti-spending movement that sprang up days after Mr. Obama's first inauguration, Mr. Paul said, "None of the things I ran on as part of the tea party have been fixed. We're still going down a hole as far as the debt crisis looming. And so we really have to still talk about spending and we want to make sure there is still a voice for that."
Mr. Paul taped his response on Tuesday afternoon at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, using one camera filming straight on — to avoid any Michelle Bachman repeats. It will air on all major news cable networks and affiliates except Fox, probably between 10:30 and 11 p.m., after the president's State of the Union message Tuesday. The feed will be streamed on www.teapartyexpress.org and http://www.redstate.com/.
2016 tea leaves
Some in the press and in GOP official circles are calling Mr. Rubio the new face of the GOP.
It's a plausible title since Mr. Rubio is popular within his party, has boyish good looks, generally rivets audiences and, what is most important to many victory-starved conservatives, he is Republican Hispanic.
In November, Mitt Romney took only 27 percent of the Latino vote — lower than the GOP candidate received in the three previous presidential contests.
But in a CNN interview, Mr. Paul rejected the idea that anyone has the right to decide who is the new face of his party.
"I don't think anybody gets to choose who is the face is or say you or someone else is the face," Mr. Paul said. "I think we do the best to promote what we believe in. One of the things I have talked a lot about that there haven't been many other Republicans talking about is that we shouldn't send foreign aid or money to people who are burning our flag and chanting death to America."
Mrs. Martin gave him a thumbs up on that.
"We agree that there is no single face of the Republican Party, but the American people and tea party members are looking for strong leaders who will take on the tough issues that politicians and the entrenched forces in Washington refuse to do," she said.
Tea Party Patriots' other co-founder, Marc Meckler, now president of Citizens for Self-governance, argued that "it's hard to legitimately call Rubio 'establishment' when he beat down the establishment to take out Charlie Christ. Rubio's voting record in the Senate and the stands he has taken there generally comport with tea party values."
But Mr. Meckler then recounted his observations of what may be a growing rift between Mr. Rubio and the tea party, which much of the regular GOP and, more harshly, Republican operatives like Karl Rove have blamed for helping nominate conservative GOP candidates over more moderate ones who then get trounced by Democrats in general elections.
"I was in Florida last week for three days meeting with tea party groups, and I cannot tell you that Rubio is universally loved in the tea party movement," Mr. Meckler said. "There is genuine skepticism, as many told me that he has kept his distance from, and been generally inaccessible to the tea party groups there."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.