After the State of the Union address Tuesday night, Sen. Marco Rubio steps before the cameras to deliver one of the Republican responses — and the stakes couldn’t be higher for the high-profile young senator.
“He has the weight of a party on his shoulders, not to mention he is going toe-to-toe with the most popular person in office right now,” said Ford O’Connell, who served as the rural outreach director for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“I think, in some ways, his potential 2016 aspirations are on the line,” he said about a possible Rubio presidential bid. “I think the party needs Rubio to be successful more than Rubio needs Rubio to be successful because we are at a time when we need new leaders.”
(SEE RELATED: Marco Rubio immigration bill sneaks in database expansions)
Mr. Rubio will already make history by becoming the first person to deliver the response in English and Spanish.
But when it comes to having an impact, he will be fighting history: The record shows far more washouts than standouts in the official opposition party’s response to the annual presidential address.
Mr. Obama has most of the advantages, including setting — he speaks from the podium in the House, to an audience filled with the country’s top leaders. He also usually speaks for about an hour, allowing him to deploy soaring rhetoric and go deep into specifics.
Mr. Rubio, meanwhile, will have about 15 minutes, and will not have the trappings of the House chamber to lend his event the same grandeur as Mr. Obama.
“There are far more bad responses than good ones,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist. “I think the Republicans would be better off yielding back their time.”
(SEE RELATED: Univision staffer calls Rubio a ‘token slave boy’ on Facebook)
Bobby Jindal learned that lesson the hard way in 2009 when he entered the evening being billed as the new face of the Republican Party. After a widely panned response to the president’s remarks, talk of an inevitable presidential bid by the Louisiana governor came to a virtual halt.
But GOP leaders and Mr. Rubio’s ardent supporters insist it will be different for the 41-year-old Floridian with the inspiring life story — the son of a Cuban immigrant bartender and a maid who has become one of the shining stars of the Republican Party.
If Mr. Rubio does stumble, there are others more than willing to step into the leadership void. One potential rival, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, was tabbed by the Tea Party Express to offer up a tea party response to the president’s speech Tuesday night.
“To me, I see it as extra response. I don’t see it as necessarily divisive,” Mr. Paul said Sunday on CNN. “I won’t say anything on there that necessarily is like, ‘Oh, Marco Rubio’s wrong.’ He and I don’t always agree, but the thing is, this isn’t about he and I.”
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who delivered the GOP response to Mr. Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, said Mr. Rubio is well-equipped to push back against the Democrat-driven idea that Republicans are a mean-spirited group that is anti-women, protects the rich, and is not concerned about the middle class.
“I think it is nonsense, but during the past campaign it is a message that they drove home, and Marco Rubio drives through all those boundaries,” Mr. McDonnell said, advising the Miami native to explain to viewers in simple terms how the party’s free-market economic vision can help them.
“They are sitting in their living room, looking at the television, and they want to hear something from you that relates to them,” Mr. McDonnell said. “Marco Rubio is very good at that, and has a very good story about the American dream.”
Ana Navarro, Hispanic co-chairwoman of Mr. McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Mr. Rubio has the ability to connect with young people and Hispanic voters — key slices of the electorate that helped propel Mr. Obama to a second term.
“Marco did not get chosen because he is a token Hispanic,” Ms. Navarro said. “He got chosen because he is a good communicator; I think, the best orator in the Republican Party today. The fact that he is Hispanic and young is frosting on the cake. He embodies everything the Republican Party needs to attract.”
Mr. Rubio, like Mr. Obama, has risen to the peak of the GOP on the basis of oratory.
He introduced himself to conservatives at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, wowing the audience with a keynote address about American exceptionalism and the sacrifices his parents made that “opened doors for their children that had been closed for them” in Cuba.
Later that year, he won his Senate seat, chasing the then-Gov. Charlie Crist from the GOP and easily winning the general election.
This past August, he broke onto the national stage with a well-received speech introducing Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
In tapping Mr. Rubio to deliver the official response, House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said they were counting on him to explain the GOP’s limited-government philosophy to voters.
But Mo Eliethee, a Democratic strategist, said the looming question is whether Mr. Rubio will offer new policy prescriptions that appeal to Hispanics, young voters and women.
“There are those that believe the Republican Party needs wholesale changes in terms of what it stands for and how it appeals to a large section of population,” he said. “Everyone agrees with that. The question is: Is it cosmetic or is it substantive?”