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The Rubio factor

Posted: January 6, 2012 9:47 a.m.
Updated: January 9, 2012 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The great thing about Iowa is that no matter whom the voters selected in their neighborhood huddles, it doesn't really matter. Placing in Iowa might land one a talk show (see Mike Huckabee), but the preferences of a handful of Americans belonging to a committed, ideological subset of a committed, ideological party do not a national trend suggest. The presumptive candidate proceeds apace.

Which raises the question none too soon: Whom will Mitt Romney select as his running mate?

Several names have been suggested, including Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. Rice's interest isn't clear and Portman, despite his personal qualities and swing-state bona fides, would merely add a snooze button to Romney's campaign.

Latest to the list is the young and junior senator from Florida, Marco Rubio. His political resume includes: Nine years as a state legislator, including two as speaker of the Florida House; enormous popularity with tea partyers who sent him to the U.S. Senate over Republican Gov. Charlie Crist; a Cuban heritage and, thus, his presumed appeal to Hispanic voters; he's young at just 40 and, it never hurts, attractive.

Add to the above the fact that Florida is a crucial swing state, the population of which is 22.5 percent Hispanic.

No one is ever perfect, of course, and Rubio critics will cite his chronologically challenged rendition of his parents’ exile from Cuba. Rubio claimed that they were driven out by Fidel Castro when, in fact, they left Cuba before Castro took over the island nation. Rubio later explained that the date, though incorrect, didn’t diminish the family’s experience of exile when, upon Castro’s rise to power, they didn’t feel they could return to Cuba.

For Cubans who had to leave their homeland with empty pockets and broken hearts, their homes ravaged and their belongings confiscated by revolutionary rebels, Rubio's exaggeration no doubt stung. But fatal for Rubio? Not likely. It is possible to imagine that growing up in south Florida, where Spanish is a first language and displacement is the Cuban community’s core identity, Rubio can be understood to have embraced the larger cultural narrative as his own.  As he put it in an editoral for Politico, “I am the son of exiles. I inherited two generations of unfulfilled dreams. This is a story that needs no embellishing.”

Of perhaps greater value to Democrats is Rubio's attractiveness to tea partyers. Thanks to media portraits of tea party members as tantrum-throwing ignoramuses with racist tendencies, the argument would be that Rubio can't appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. This argument has some merit, but only if you haven't heard Rubio speak or paid attention to his message. Rubio isn't just a poster boy for the shrink-government contingent. Much like Barack Obama, he's a monument to the American Dream. Like Obama, he speaks often about the privilege of being an American and of possessing a birthright that allows the son of a bartender and a maid to become a U.S. senator. Only in America.

But unlike Obama, Rubio condemns rhetoric that seeks to divide the American people against each other. He shuns the idea that some are worse off because others are doing better. In a year-end address to the Senate about his first year in office (http://bit.ly/vWN5L5), Rubio articulated a conservative road map that is equal parts tough love and compassion and that combines the conservatism of Ronald Reagan with the conciliatory charm of Bill Clinton. He is a human composite of sunny optimism and urgent realism. If it wasn't a stump speech, it should be.

Saying we're not a nation of haves and have-nots, but a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, Rubio pointed out three obstacles to prosperity: a "crazy" tax code; complicated regulations that kill small businesses; and a national debt that exceeds the economy.

Obama inherited a bad economy, Rubio conceded, but, mathematically speaking, the country now is in worse shape with higher debt, unemployment and poverty. Rubio said that clearing these obstacles and creating a realistic plan to reduce the debt and deficit would lead to greater prosperity, which would lead to more jobs, which would mean more taxpayers and therefore more revenue for, among other things, Medicare funding and infrastructure repairs.

You won't find a Republican who doesn't agree with this assessment, but you also won't find any who can deliver the argument with greater passion or less-divisive rhetoric. This is the Rubio that Democrats should fear, and to whom Romney no doubt is well attuned.

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