“Raising taxes won’t create private-sector jobs,” Rubio said yesterday in the first bilingual response to the president’s speech, in English and Spanish. “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead,” he added. “It’s going to hold you back.”
Republicans see Rubio as their bridge to Hispanic voters and to the young. His speech, delivered first in English and then in Spanish, covered Republican themes, including opposition to tax increases and a need to reshape programs such as the Medicare health-care system.
“I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother,” Rubio said. “But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favor of bankrupting it.”
The speech was a high-risk, potentially high-reward mission for the 41-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, the second-youngest Republican in the chamber. While his address was well received, an impromptu interruption for a water break -- during which Rubio, in front of the camera, gulped from a Poland Spring water bottle -- prompted a flurry of comments on Twitter, including one from the senator poking fun at himself by posting a picture of the plastic bottle.
Viewed by many of his Senate colleagues as a rising star, Rubio is one of three Hispanics in the chamber. Republicans say he’s well-positioned to help the party woo Latino voters, 71 percent of whom backed Obama in November.
Rubio is “a fresh face, but I think he’s got a great ability to communicate in a way that people understand,” Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in an interview in advance of the speech. “And I think that’s what we need right now.”
Rubio said his parents aren’t millionaires and that they came to the U.S. “because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy.”
“So Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” the senator said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
Elected in 2010 with backing from the anti-tax Tea Party, Rubio has cultivated a more moderate image over the past two years. He’s a leader of a bipartisan Senate effort to rewrite U.S. immigration laws, one of Obama’s second-term priorities.
“We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally,” Rubio said. “But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
Rubio drew criticism from women’s groups, another constituency that mostly supported Obama in November, for being one of 22 Republicans yesterday who voted against legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. The measure would provide government programs and aid to victims. The Senate passed the bill 78-22.
Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s 2011 State of the Union response helped elevate his profile the year before Mitt Romney chose him as his presidential running mate. Still, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s 2009 performance was panned and was seen as hampering his national political aspirations.
Rubio’s speech was the latest entry in his budding national profile. In August, he followed actor Clint Eastwood’s now- infamous diatribe to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, to introduce Romney for his acceptance speech.
The Feb. 18 cover of Time magazine features Rubio and the headline “The Republican Savior,” spurring criticism from Christian groups and prompting Rubio to post on Twitter, “There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus.”
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