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A kinder, gentler, wiser Marco Rubio

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marco Rubio presented GOP response to Obama's State of the Union
  • Ruben Navarrette: Rubio came across positively, appealing to broad range of people
  • He says Rubio counters the argument that the GOP is the party of the wealthy
  • Navarrette: How much of Rubio's switch on immigration is real?

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- Sen. Marco Rubio was ready for his close-up, and he got it. Now you know what all the fuss is about.

Rubio, a rising star and possible 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, was picked to deliver the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union Address.

The selection tells you a lot about what the Republican Party has in store for Rubio, and what this 41-year-old son of Cuban immigrants can do for a party that needs to become more user-friendly for Latinos. His remarks were also delivered in Spanish.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Rubio's delivery was solid, his voice strong, and his passion unmistakable. The senator from Florida is an excellent communicator whose life experience -- as the son of a bartender and hotel maid who worked hard so their children could get ahead -- is easy for many Americans to connect with. In the Republican Party, there are the multimillionaires -- and then there is Marco.

And the message that Rubio sought to communicate Tuesday night -- about how making America prosperous comes from growing the middle class, expanding opportunity and protecting economic freedom, and not from increasing the footprint of government -- came through loud and clear.

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Rubio knows that the Republican Party has a reputation as the party of the rich. That happens when you nominate as your party's presidential candidate someone worth $250 million.

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So he had this message for Obama:

"Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren't millionaires. They're retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They're workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They're immigrants, who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy. The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security. So Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors."

That is the sweet spot. Rubio understands that the best hope of the Republican Party is for it to establish itself as the party not of the rich, but of those who aspire to one day be rich.

And speaking of immigrants, Rubio already has one accomplishment in that arena -- albeit an indirect one. Obama's supporters like to tout his announcement last June that his administration would offer young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children the chance to avoid deportation by applying for deferred action and a temporary work permit. What they forget to mention is that the only reason that Obama did this was because Rubio was working on a bill that would have offered this group of young people permanent relief by giving them legal status.

GOP's Rubio rips Obama

Now Rubio is part of a bipartisan group of senators, the "group of eight," that wants to tackle immigration reform by, among other things, offering the undocumented an earned pathway to citizenship. It's not something that Rubio -- who used to have the support of the tea party but no longer appears to, at least on immigration -- would have considered a few years ago.

Marco Rubio profiled: GOP response
Marco Rubio's dry mouth moment

This is a kinder and gentler Marco, and also a wiser one. When he entered the Senate, he expressed support for the ghastly immigration law in Arizona, which has served as a recipe for racial profiling of Latinos. He also opposed the DREAM Act, which would have offered legal status to young illegal immigrants who went to college or joined the military.

But in January 2012, I saw Rubio give a speech in Miami that gave me hope that he was coming around. He talked about how the Republican Party could not just be the party that opposed illegal immigration but also had to be the party that encouraged legal immigration. And he acknowledged something that too few Republicans have the guts to admit -- that there are those in their party whose tone, on this issue, is much too mean and intolerant and divisive for their own good.

Talk Back: Is giving the State of the Union response a political 'kiss of death'?

Honestly, I don't know how much of this is real and how much has been manufactured by Team Rubio in advance of a possible run at the presidency. On immigration, there is a long list of politicians -- in both parties -- who have undergone extreme makeovers. Obama has been on multiple sides of the issue, deporting DREAMers one minute and offering them a reprieve the next. Rubio wouldn't be the first to change his tune.

Overall, Rubio established himself as a force to be reckoned with, in the Republican Party and beyond. His detractors -- most of them loyal Democrats and Obama supporters -- were anxious to find fault with his remarks, but he gave them little to work with.

There was that one awkward moment near the end where Rubio, his voice cracking and his throat dry, quickly reached for a bottle of water. Social media lit up. His critics joked that the gesture was such a terrible distraction that Americans should just ignore the whole speech.

Really? The water didn't bother me. But Rubio's remarks did make me thirsty for new leadership in the White House.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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