The choice of Marco Rubio to deliver the Republican reply to Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, which he will do in both English and Spanish, caps a whirlwind period that has elevated him into a de facto party leadership position.
Only months after the 41-year-old Florida senator was forced to withdraw a plan to normalise the status of young people in the US without citizenship, Mr Rubio is at the centre of a renewed push in Congress for immigration reform.
Since Mr Obama’s re-election, he has also boosted his fundraising arm, a requisite to building a broader base within the party, taken his message of upward mobility to key presidential states, and reinforced his hawkish credentials on national security.
It is a mark of how far he has come that when Mr Rubio questioned Hillary Clinton last month before a congressional committee, it was a commonplace observation that the pair would be facing each other in the 2016 presidential election.
Time magazine anointed Mr Rubio on its cover on Friday as the “Republican saviour”, prompting him to reply via Twitter: “There is only one saviour and it is not me.”
Mitt Romney, the Republican 2012 candidate for the presidency, passed over Mr Rubio as a running mate in favour of Paul Ryan. Along with many conservatives in the party, Mr Romney also shunned Mr Rubio’s proposal early last year for limited immigration reform.
Mr Romney’s stance backfired, ceding swaths of the electorate, especially Hispanics, to Mr Obama. In the midst of the campaign, the president issued an executive order to push through changes similar to those advocated by Mr Rubio.
The senator and other senior Republicans who back immigration reform have in many respects been pushing at an open door since the election, when seven out of 10 Hispanic and Asian Americans voted for Mr Obama.
Mr Rubio’s background, as the son of Cuban émigrés whose father was a bartender, gives him extra credibility in selling efforts to find a fair mechanism to normalise the status of an estimated 11m undocumented US immigrants.
“Sometimes, good policy is good politics: he believes Americans are ready to move on from this issue,” said a Republican who has advised Mr Rubio. “We don’t want to be the party of angry old white men.”
But it remains a rat’s nest with sections of the party. Mr Rubio has been adamant that undocumented immigrants cannot jump ahead of anyone coming in from offshore through the legal channels in normalising their status. “They cannot leapfrog anybody,” Mr Rubio told one interviewer. “We do not want to see a single person who has done the right thing be disadvantaged because of this.”
Despite bipartisan support in the Senate for reform, one fellow Republican senator called his proposals “naive” and large numbers of conservatives in the House of Representatives are wary of the plan.
The Republican disquiet in the House reflects longstanding hostility among conservatives at the grassroots to any plan offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“There is a big trust factor here: many people [in the electorate] do not trust the government on this issue,” said Mike Franc of the Heritage Foundation.
Mr Rubio and Mr Obama are in broad agreement on immigration, an issue that the senator may emphasise when he delivers the State of the Union reply on Tuesday. But of the pair, it is Mr Obama that has his party behind him. Mr Rubio is still out on a limb.
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