WASHINGTON – Marco Rubio is taking center stage as Republicans search for a new leader.
In the nearly 100 days since President Barack Obama won a second term, the Florida senator has made calculated, concrete steps to emerge as a next-generation leader of a rudderless party, put a 21st-century stamp on the conservative movement and potentially position himself for a future presidential run.
The bilingual Cuban-American lawmaker has become Republicans' point person on immigration reform and pitches economic solutions at middle-class workers. He is an evangelist for a modern, inclusive party that welcomes more Hispanics and minorities but says Republicans must stay true to their principles.
"In a way, he's trying to save us from ourselves," says Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union who gave Rubio his first job in politics – as a South Florida field staffer during Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "He gives us comfort against the naysayers who say we need to change our basic beliefs to attract a wider audience."
Rubio will give the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, a rebuttal that Rubio advisers say will offer economic prescriptions for a sluggish economy and counter what they call Obama's government-centered economic approach.
The speech comes as demand for the 41-year-old son of immigrants has soared and the party has tried to recover from significant electoral losses and map out a path ahead.
Call it the "it" factor. Time magazine splashed Rubio on its cover this week, anointing him "The Republican Savior." Rubio, a Catholic, responded on Twitter: "There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus". He shrugged off the label during an interview with The Associated Press: "I didn't write the cover. I wouldn't have said it if I wrote it."
"There are no saviors in politics," he said.
The former Florida House speaker has been on a Republican rocket ship since 2010, when he knocked off Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in a Senate race that showed the tea party's clout. He introduced presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention.
Associated Press writer Christine Armario contributed to this report from Miami.
Follow Ken Thomas at: http://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas