LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
After the president's speech comes the GOP response. Republican House and Senate leaders have tapped Marco Rubio, a 41-year-old Cuban American senator from Florida, to deliver that reply. For a party that's fared badly with both young and Hispanic voters, tonight's a chance to showcase a fast-rising youthful Latino with a new stance on immigration.
NPR's David Welna has this report.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In announcing Marco Rubio is delivering tonight's GOP response, House speaker John Boehner called him, quote, "one of our party's most dynamic and inspiring leaders." Time Magazine has Rubio on its current cover, where it calls him The Republican Savior.
It's not the first time Republicans have thrust the freshman Florida senator onto a national stage. It was Rubio who introduced GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney at the party's convention in Tampa last August.
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SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: You know, this is a big honor for me. Just a - not so long ago I was just a deep underdog candidate. The only people that thought I could win all lived in my house. Four of them were under the age of 10.
WELNA: Right after Romney lost, Rubio spoke at a political dinner in Iowa, confirming too many he's eyeing the 2016 presidential race. And just last week, there was Rubio being interviewed before a 20-something crowd at a Washington bar by the news and gossip Web site, BuzzFeed, about just who was his favorite rap singer.
RUBIO: Tupac's lyrics were probably more insightful in my opinion, with all apologies to the Biggie fans.
WELNA: Those who know Rubio say watch out for him, and it's not just Republicans saying that.
STEVE SCHALE: Folks in my party that underestimate Marco Rubio do so at their own peril.
WELNA: Florida Democratic political consultant Steve Schale has known Rubio since this son of Cuban immigrants was speaker of Florida's House. Schale is not at all surprised that recently Rubio's jumped ahead of many Republicans on immigration reform.
SCHALE: He's a pretty bright guy. I think he understands the risk he's taking here. But he's also ambitious and I'm sure he's made the calculation that in the long run, this is the right place to be.
WELNA: Just three years ago, when Rubio was a Tea Party-backed challenger to former Republican Governor Charlie Crist in the GOP senate primary, he declared in a Fox News debate it would be wrong to grant citizenship to people in the country illegally.
RUBIO: And the reason why I think it's wrong is that if you grant amnesty, as the governor proposes that we do - in any form, whether it's back of the line or so forth - you will destroy any chance we will ever have of having a legal immigration system that works here in America.
WELNA: And yet, here's Rubio two weeks ago on the Senate floor, explaining the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that he and a bipartisan group of senators have outlined.
RUBIO: And once you have a Green Card, depending on how you got it, you will have to wait about five years before you can even apply for citizenship.
WELNA: Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss says normally, he would not support any path to citizenship. But with Rubio, he's willing to cut some slack.
SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS REPUBLICAN, GEORGIA: He is so knowledgeable about this issue. And I'm glad to see somebody with his background step forward and say it's important and we need to look at it.
WELNA: Not all Republicans agree. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is giving a separate, Tea Party response tonight to the president's address. Here's Paul on CNN.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: I don't see it as necessarily divisive. You know, I won't say anything on there that necessarily is like, oh, Marco Rubio is wrong. He and I don't always agree. But the thing is, is this isn't about he and I.
WELNA: Latino voting expert Lisa Garcia Bedolla, at the University of California, Berkeley, says what it's really about is the Republican Party's appeal to Hispanic voters.
LISA GARCIA BEDOLLA: I do think it's important, from a symbolic standpoint, both that they selected Senator Rubio and that he's giving the speech in Spanish and English.
WELNA: The problem, says Garcia Bedolla, is that Rubio still seems out of step with most Latinos - even on immigration. Rubio himself contends that what Latinos really want is free enterprise and limited government.
It's a message Rubio will likely repeat tonight in English and Spanish.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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