WASHINGTON (AP) — A struggling Republican party is hanging ever more hope for its revitalization on Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American seen by many as a top contender for its 2016 presidential nomination.
Rubio is fast becoming a star. Republican leaders picked the 41-year-old to give the party's response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday. That's an honor typically reserved for the party's most impressive rising figures.
He's young, a deft communicator and may have the political talents needed to span a growing split in Republican ranks, to patch over divisions between the no-compromise, small-government, low-tax tea party wing and the more pragmatic, old-line establishment. He also could have the kind of national appeal that chips away at middle-of-the-road support for Democrats.
But that kind of moderation might end up alienating his strong base among the most conservative Republicans and could damage his presidential aspirations in party primaries in 2016.
Still, he is clearly in the political spotlight. Time magazine put Rubio's picture on its latest cover, calling him the "Republican Savior."
A charismatic politician like Rubio embodies the skills his party sees as necessary if it is to somehow remodel its image after a poor showing in the November election. He stands out in a party that tends to hand power to older, white men. And his race and full-throated backing for immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal residents, could improve the party's poor standing with Hispanics, a growing part of the electorate. In the 2012 election, Obama captured 71 percent of the Hispanic vote. Opponent Mitt Romney pulled down just 27 percent after saying he favored "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants: making their lives in the country so difficult that they wouldn't want to stay.
Asked this week about his White House ambitions, Rubio was coy.
"I really believe that if I do the best job that I can in the Senate, in a couple years I'll be in a position to make a decision about whether I want to run for re-election, leave politics and give someone else a shot, or run for some other position," he said.
Rubio is unquestionably conservative, yet he avoids the divisive, over-the-top rhetoric that frightens moderates.
"Ultimately, the real answer is to convince people that what we stand for, that free enterprise and limited government is the best way to create the conditions for their dreams to be possible," he said.
He proved his talent for selling himself and his immigration ideas with an appearance on the talk-radio program of Rush Limbaugh, long a beacon for the most conservative Americans. Limbaugh and his admirers are intense opponents of relaxing immigration laws, particularly of offering citizenship to illegal immigrants — a move they equate with granting amnesty to criminals.
But Rubio proved persuasive. When he was done, Limbaugh praised the senator.
"What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy," Limbaugh said. "You are recognizing reality. I'm just worried the president is trying to change reality." Limbaugh didn't note that Obama's plan differs little from the one backed by Rubio.
While being vague about his plans, Rubio has been trying to cultivate Republicans who would be critical in a presidential run. Right after the November election, he visited Iowa, the Midwestern state that holds the first-in-the-nation caucus that will mark the start of the long process of choosing a presidential candidate in 2016. In December, he and other potential candidates spoke at a high-profile dinner attended by top Republicans.
Rubio's speech suggested that poverty and education might be central to a 2016 campaign.
"The path to a prosperous and growing American middle class," Rubio told the dinner gathering, "is the combination of a vibrant economy that creates these middle-class jobs and a people with the skills needed for these new jobs."
Rubio had been a darling of his party's tea party wing after his 2010 victory in the race for the Florida Senate seat, a political battle that saw him humiliate Florida's once-popular Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as an independent after it became clear that Rubio would win the Republican nomination.
While Rubio took a hard line against immigration reform then, things have changed.
Many centrist Republicans, realize that party positions on an array of issues — immigration perhaps first and foremost — no longer appeal to much of America's increasingly diverse electorate. They know they must remodel the party's image. By taking a softer stand on immigration, the speculation is, the party can win more Hispanic support.
But many bedrock conservatives still see a change on immigration as a renunciation of party ideals. Some prominent Republicans have already denounced Rubio's stance. Sen. David Vitter said Rubio is "amazingly naive on this issue." Rick Santorum, a former senator and Republican presidential contender, said Rubio was playing with "a dangerous group."
That creates a potential risk for Rubio. Pushing for an immigration overhaul could alienate the very voters that produced his overwhelming Senate victory. Those same voters would be critical for him to win his party's presidential nomination.
The American system of primary elections to decide a party's candidate for elected offices tends to favor candidates on the extremes of the political spectrum. Primary voters often prefer candidates most committed to their ideologies, rather than moderates whose broad appeal boosts prospects for victory in the general election.
That tendency could also doom chances of passing an immigration overhaul like the one favored by Rubio. Key Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn of the border state of Texas, have withheld judgment until a draft of any proposal is ready. They are among Republicans facing re-election in 2014 who could see challenges from more conservative rivals. Republicans have already lost several congressional seats after long-standing moderate members lost primaries to right-wingers, who were then defeated by Democrats in the general election.