In his response to the State of the Union speech, Florida Sen. Marco
Rubio used his considerable political gifts to shift the Republican Party's
image from concern for the wealthy to concern for the middle class and
minorities, particularly Hispanics.
Delivering his speech in both Spanish and English, Rubio sought to reset the GOP's disastrous relationship with Hispanics in the 2012 election cycle.
He tried to link his party's anti-tax and small-government stances to prosperity and employment for all.
"This opportunity -- to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life -- it isn't bestowed on us from Washington," Rubio said. "It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business."
Economic growth, he said, "is the best way to help the middle class" and will produce more government revenue than increasing taxes, which, he said, "won't create private sector jobs."
"Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich," he said. "I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors."
But Democrats say Rubio's approach is just a cosmetic shift in a Republican Party whose principles, they say, were voted down Nov. 6 -- a party set on extremist policies that appeal to the wealthy, whites, and the tea party movement.
"Senator Rubio, along with the leadership of the entire Republican Party, has clearly not gotten the message," national Democratic Party chair and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a news conference call prior to Rubio's speech. "You can't put lipstick on a pig."
Since their 2012 loss, Republicans have debated whether to recast their stances on issues or just the tone of their approach to voters.
Some acknowledge that Rubio, initially elected as a tea party champion after defeating moderate Republican Charlie Crist in a primary, isn't offering major changes on issues.
"He gives us comfort against naysayers who say we need to change our basic beliefs to attract a wider audience," Al Cardenas, a prominent Florida GOP activist who's also president of the American Conservative Union, told the Associated Press.
But Rubio's youth, intelligence, charisma and immigrant background are a sharp contrast to the 2012 GOP and Mitt Romney, whose image was that of someone who disdained those on the bottom half of the nation's economic ladder and hoped illegal immigrants would "self-deport."
That makes him one of the few well-known spokesmen perceived as able to reconnect the party with voters. It has led to a string of distinctions that appear to be leading Rubio inevitably to a 2016 presidential candidacy.
Most recently, he landed a Time magazine cover story speculating on whether he's the "savior" of the party.
Rubio proclaims himself uncomfortable with that label. But following his party's loss in November, he pivoted on some issues to put himself at the forefront of change in the party.
His most obvious shift: advocating immigration reform, including earned legal status and eventually citizenship, for illegal immigrants now in the country.
He also made a subtle shift in the political rhetoric he had used since he started running for the Senate in 2009.
He still uses his personal story of an immigrant family's rise from blue-collar roots to prosperity and prominence, and he celebrates American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism, a sure-fire crowd-pleasing theme, is the idea the United States is unique, the greatest nation in history.
But where Rubio formerly linked exceptionalism to people who start businesses and become financially successful, as his family did, he now links it to the that he said makes the nation unique.
In an interview previewing his speech, Rubio told the conservative journal Weekly Standard his goal was "to explain why it is that limited government, free enterprise is the best way to give people the opportunity to achieve a middle class lifestyle or more and leave their kids better off than themselves."
"Every dollar that is being lent to the government is a dollar that is not being invested in our economy. ... Debt is contributing to the fact that (working people) don't have a good job," he said.
But if he moves toward moderation, Rubio has to worry about alienating his tea party base.
Already, his immigration stance is drawing criticism from the party's conservative wing. The Tea Party Express, which bills itself as the nation's largest tea party-style political committee, chose Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to deliver its own State of the Union response Tuesday night.
Democrats, on the other hand, say Rubio's professed concern for the middle class is merely camouflage.
"Marco Rubio has never stood up for the middle class so why should we believe he'll start now?" was the headline on a Democratic news release, citing Rubio's votes for the Paul Ryan budget plan, against last month's fiscal cliff deal and against a 2012 freeze on student loan interest.
Wasserman Schultz said Rubio and the Republicans "continue to offer an extreme view of government that would dismantle America's social safety net in order to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires."
"I find it shocking that someone who represents millions of seniors who depend on Medicare's guaranteed coverage would support the Ryan budget in ending Medicare as we know it," she said.
In his speech, Rubio delivered the same response he has used for years to those who criticize Republican proposals for cost-cutting in Social Security and Medicare.
"The biggest obstacles to balancing the budget are programs where spending is already locked in. One of these programs, Medicare, is especially important to me," he said, citing his own parents' need for the programs.
"I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother. But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting it."
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