ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Today, Marco Rubio became the third Republican to officially enter the 2016 presidential race. The young Hispanic freshman senator from Florida announced his bid at the Freedom Tower in Miami, the place where thousands of Cubans, like Rubio's parents, were processed as they entered the U.S. Rubio's experience as the child of Cuban immigrants was the centerpiece of his speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: My father stood behind a small portable bar in the back of a room for all those years so that tonight I could stand behind this podium in front of this room in this nation.
SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson reports on the path that could lead Rubio to the GOP nomination.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Marco Rubio has been in the second-tier of Republican hopefuls, behind Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. But Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway predicts that will change after today.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: Senator Rubio will catapult to the top tier almost immediately after his announcement. Why? He is a very unique voice within the Republican Party who reflects the kind of generational change.
LIASSON: Rubio is one of the strongest candidates that are not well known. In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Rubio was the candidate that more Republicans said they could see supporting than anyone else.
ELLYN BOGDANOFF: My name is Ellyn Bogdanoff. When Marco Rubio was speaker of the House, I was the whip.
LIASSON: Rubio's supporters from Florida say he is charismatic and eloquent with lots of raw political talent.
BOGDANOFF: He's just impressive. He is a passionate individual and a phenomenal speaker who inspires.
LIASSON: The path to victory that Rubio envisions is based on straddling the divisions inside the Republican coalition, from the establishment to the Tea Party to all points in between. The theory is that the party is so fractured right now no one faction is big enough to nominate its candidate. Jeb Bush, for instance, has the support of business elites, but he's not a solid front runner because he's not as acceptable to the other factions the way his brother George was in 2000. Republican strategist Kristen Anderson says that's Rubio's challenge.
KRISTEN ANDERSON: Can he remain somebody who is acceptable to social conservatives in the party while also championing a position that makes him appealing to foreign-policy hawks within the party and endears him to folks who take certain either fiscal positions or positions on immigration?
LIASSON: Rubio's team is confident he can win the, quote, "young, fresh faced" bracket of the nominating contest - beating fellow freshmen senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. But Rubio's path to victory depends on Bush and-or Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker faltering. Bush is a particular problem because he and Rubio share the same Florida network of donors and advisers. Kellyanne Conway says Rubio's entry into the race is a sign that Bush may have trouble staying at the top.
CONWAY: Why - because even Governor Jeb Bush's political protege, Marco Rubio, has not been scared out of the race just because Jeb Bush is in it. Jeb Bush, who is a conservative governor of Florida, I don't think anybody can take that away from him, but there's a concern among people like me as well that having the third Bush versus the first woman will never be a fair fight.
LIASSON: Then there's the Obama problem. Rubio has no more national experience than, Obama did and, says Kristen Anderson, because of gridlock in Congress, Rubio can't point to many legislative accomplishments.
ANDERSON: It's an argument I expect to hear many of the candidates make in the primary who are governors. So many of the Republican candidates coming out of the Senate were elected in that Tea Party post-Barack Obama wave and have about as much experience as President Obama did when he ran.
LIASSON: But, says Kellyanne Conway, don't underestimate Republicans' hunger for something newer and younger.
CONWAY: I confess, it's a new thing for my party, but there's this real thirst for generational change.
LIASSON: In the Senate, Rubio has worked to establish himself as a foreign-policy hawk. He's challenged Republican orthodoxy with tax proposals that seek to address income mobility, and he's been a steadfast social conservative. But Rubio made one bold move that has cost him - he co-sponsored the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill that the conservative populists rejected as amnesty for illegal immigrants. Since then, he's disavowed his support for the bill, saying the border has to be secured first. But, says Kellyanne Conway, the damage was done.
CONWAY: Trying that immigration reform a couple of years ago was a grievous error, and it's one that many in the Tea Party in the grassroots movement have yet to forget. I remember doing focus groups in Florida around his immigration plan and you had voters in Tampa saying I can't believe that Senator Rubio is trying to enact Chuck Schumer's plan. I'm thinking, they know who Chuck Schumer is, but it was a serious point they were making. They felt that that was completely out of step with most conservatives.
LIASSON: Rubio's supporters point out that almost all the other candidates have, at one time or another, supported a path to legalization. And even if it might hurt Rubio's bid for the nomination, it would probably help him if he makes it to the general election. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.
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