Rubio making the most of moment in veepstakes spotlight

(CBS News) The search for a vice president, as Democratic strategist Chris Lehane describes it, "is the original American Idol/Dancing With The Stars, with some candidates auditioning for the part and others leveraging the stage to launch their own national careers."

Marco Rubio is doing both -- and wiping the floor with his competition -- even if it's unclear whether he's really interested in being Romney's vice president, or if Romney's all that interested in him.

Rubio, the 41-year old senator from Florida and the country's most prominent Hispanic Republican, is mentioned in every discussion of potential vice presidents even though he's held federal office for less than two years. He has been busy this spring deepening his policy credentials and beginning to court the voters and politicians who will be crucial if he makes a run for the presidency in 2016 or 2020.

In the last two months alone, Rubio has laid out his vision for American foreign policy; traveled to Guantanamo Bay; begun work on a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act (to give some sort of legal status to the children of illegal immigrants who have attended college or served in the military); addressed residents of two early primary states, Iowa and South Carolina; and used his political action committee to help support two promising Republicans running for Senate: Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

And Rubio's not done yet. On Thursday, he will gave another foreign-policy speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. In the coming months, he will campaign with Mourdock in Indiana and release his memoir, "An American Son," complete with a July book tour that includes stops in Florida, his home state, South Carolina, an early primary state, and Virginia, a swing state. Yes, the tour - a bus tour - was dictated by geography. But it's some pretty politically convenient geography.

"What Rubio's doing isn't novel although he's certainly doing it in a more conspicuous way than just about anybody else I can remember," said Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University School of Law professor who has written extensively about the vice presidency.

The spotlight is nothing new for Rubio, whose staff says he has always kept a full schedule to help other candidates and rally Republican voters. "The difference now is that because of all the speculation around the vice presidency, things that were long planned are suddenly getting a lot of attention, which is welcome," said spokesman Alex Conant.

But Rubio has been unique in the sheer number of high-profile appearances, which are now well documented by the media because of his presence on the short list of potential vice presidential candidates.

"Rubio is clearly leveraging the VP process to project himself into a national player," Lehane, who served as press secretary to vice president Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, wrote in an email. "Rubio, because he is from Florida and has already been in the conversation, is really using the process to not just raise his stature but to raise his influence and wield the power of such heightened influence," he added.

Rubio's actions in some ways suggest he is trying to shape his party rather than position himself to be number two on the national ticket. And that can put Rubio at odds with Romney, the new head of his party.

Rubio's vision for the DREAM Act, for instance, would grant a non-immigrant visa to the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. at a young age and attended college here. It's a stark contrast to the hardline position Romney took during the GOP primary season, when he pledged to veto the Democratic version of the bill. During an April campaign stop in Pennsylvania with the young senator, Romney declined to weigh in on Rubio's idea.

Rubio also broke with Romney on the issue of foreign aid during his policy speech to the Brookings Institute in April. Whereas Romney has questioned the wisdom of humanitarian spending while the United States is so deeply in debt, Rubio endorsed a robust foreign aid budget as a means of strengthening American influence and ideals abroad.

In this vein, Rubio is not behaving like a prospective ticket-mate. "It's the job of the vice president to work for, to promote, to back up, to act as a first lieutenant for the president. That's what the job is," said Jody Baumgartner, an associate professor and scholar of the vice presidency East Carolina University. "As a modern vice president, you do not have an identity."

Rubio has been far more effective as a critic of President Obama, whom he painted as the most "divisive figure in modern American history" at a recent address to South Carolina Republicans.

While Rubio has defended Romney's policies when asked -as he was in a recent Fox News Sunday interview - he often omits Romney's name when he's delivering a speech. That was the case in the South Carolina speech and remarks to a Des Moines business group earlier this month.

"He is fundamentally a figure of the future. And I don't think that future is 2012, or I think it's likely not to be 2012 on a national ticket," said Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who advised John McCain's 2008 presidential bid. "The magnitude of his political talent and star power suggests...he's a guy who's not in the understudy role. You know that he will be a serious candidate for the presidency in his own right if he chooses to do it."

That's why Schmidt predicted that Rubio is actually trying to cement a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican convention in Tampa this August, a role that would parallel Obama's rise.

And it may be that Rubio -- young, eloquent, tea party-backed, conservative and Latino, but new to national issues and policy -- could be more helpful to Romney off the ticket than on it.

"Every day that Marco Rubio's giving a speech in a swing state is a good day for Mitt Romney," as Schmidt put it.

It just so happens that would be a good day for Marco Rubio, too.

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.