Depending on how you look at it, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been given either one of the most coveted speaking opportunities of the year or one of the most dangerous.
Just minutes after President Obama concludes his State of the Union address tonight, the first-term senator and potential presidential candidate will deliver the official Republican response. It will be an opportunity for Rubio to both rebut the president's message and bolster his already soaring national profile.
"The audience is the entire country. It's perhaps the biggest audience you'll ever get a chance to speak to," Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-Va., told CBS News. In 2010, McDonnell delivered the GOP response less than two weeks after taking office, an experience he called "humbling."
But the speaking slot comes with some inherent pitfalls. For starters, while the president is likely to speak for nearly an hour, Rubio will get roughly 10 minutes. And then there are the visuals. The president will address the nation from podium of the House of Representatives. His speech will be punctuated by applause and standing ovations. Rubio will be alone, speaking directly to a camera.}
McDonnell, who delivered his response from the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates, said it is important not to try to compete with the theater of the State of the Union.
"You've got to start by realizing that you've got to really focus on the message," McDonnell said. "Sometimes you can try too hard. We were worried about that when I first got invited. You feel like the whole burden of carrying the Republican cause rests on your shoulders."
Just ask Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La. He delivered the response to Mr. Obama's first address to a Joint Session of Congress in 2009. The speech was widely panned as hokey and stilted. In the time since, Jindal has worked hard to rehabilitate his image.
"To use a sports metaphor, you have Hall of Fame receivers drop a pass and Hall of Fame baseball hitters swing and miss," Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, pointed out. "That was not the best delivery that a brilliant leader like Bobby Jindal can give."
For his part, Rubio has been working on his speech for several weeks, according to an aide. He will focus on Republican proposals for strengthening the economy and helping middle-class families. The speech will also be a chance to highlight the GOP's new emphasis on reaching out to Hispanic voters. Immigration reform "will likely be mentioned," the Rubio aide said. And for the first time, the response will be delivered in both English and Spanish.
"I think it's a terrific opportunity for us to show a different face, a different perspective that was not articulated or made available in the last election cycle " said Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, who is currently serving on a Republican National Committee task force deconstructing what went wrong for the party in 2012. "Marco Rubio is hardly the only Hispanic Republican. This is a big tent party but we've got to communicate that to people who may not have been able to see that during this last election cycle."
Of course the speech will only continue to fuel the endless speculation about Rubio's future ambitions. The day after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Rubio would deliver the response, TIME Magazine unveiled a cover article on the senator with the headline "The Republican Savior." Perhaps to tamp down expectations, Rubio later sent out a tweet that said, "There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus"
Regardless of Rubio's ultimate goals, giving your party's State of the Union response is a poor predictor of future electoral success. Just two future presidents have delivered the speech: Gerald Ford in 1966 and Bill Clinton in 1985. And yet, politicians with dreams of higher office usually jump at the chance to be the responder. Of the five men selected to deliver the GOP response during Mr. Obama's presidency, four are mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 2016: Jindal, McDonnell, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., (who delivered the speech in 2011), and now Rubio. (The fifth, former Gov. Mitch Daniels, R-Ind., gave last year's response and is now president of Purdue University.)
There is also one other downside to giving this year's Republican response: the calendar. With 2016 still years away, Rubio runs the risk of overexposure. Already, Democrats, eager to maintain their electoral edge among Hispanic and young voters, are on the attack.
"What's particularly unfortunate is that Senator Rubio, really along with the leadership of the entire Republican Party, has clearly not gotten the message from voters following the election," Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz told reporters yesterday. "You can't put lipstick on a pig. Marco Rubio of all people has shockingly taken the position that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security have not done the American people any good."
With that in mind, McDonnell has one more piece of advice for Rubio. As the country faces a looming deadline on government funding, a record deficit, and rancorous debates over immigration and gun control, McDonnell says Rubio's actions will speak louder than his words.
"Whatever he says, he needs to turn around and be a leader on those issues in the Senate."