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GOP to showcase Rubio as new face of party

In the Republican Party's developing effort to put on a new face after November's presidential defeat, the latest gesture is trotting out freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to deliver the GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address before Congress next week.

The 41-year-old Rubio, the American-born son of naturalized Cuban-American parents, will deliver his speech in English and Spanish -- in case anyone might miss the political significance in a country with a rapidly surging Hispanic population that gave 73 percent of its votes to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Rubio, in his rapid political rise from speaker of the Florida House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate, was often identified as the new darling of the tea party movement in the GOP. Be that as it may, Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner proclaimed him as "a champion of the growing American middle class."

This attempt to set up Mr. Rubio as a rival to President Obama for that distinction is an obvious ploy to move the GOP beyond the greatly damaging Mitt Romney gaffe of 2012. His remarks about "the 47 percent of Americans" who were supposedly dependent on the federal dole forced the Republican Party to run for cover.

In the post-election scramble to pick up the broken pieces, it makes sense for Republicans to appoint Mr. Rubio as the visible triage doctor in the emergency room. Young, articulate and most of all with Hispanic roots, he is well equipped to convey the message of a wised-up Republican Party.

Mr. Rubio said he was honored to get a chance "to discuss how limited government and free enterprise have helped make my family's dream come true in America." That sounds as if he may trot out the story of how his parents came here. He originally indicated they arrived as refugees from Fidel Castro's dictatorship. It turned out later they had left Cuba four years before Mr. Castro came to power, though they returned several times after arriving legally and subsequently became citizens. Mr. Rubio said afterward that "the essence of our family story is why they came to America in the first place, and why they had to stay."

Mr. Rubio has now taken the lead in assembling a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators urging an immigration reform plan. It pushes against the GOP's pre-election determination to fight against an eventual path to citizenship for foreigners already here illegally. But among the prospective candidates for the party's next presidential nomination, he is hardly alone in calling for a GOP awakening from its 2012 loss.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the American Enterprise Institute this week that "we must balance respect for the rule of law and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally, with care for people and families, most of whom just want to make a better life and contribute to America." He also had encouraging words for compromise on education and tax reform, saying new policies need to "reflect the priorities of working families and the future they're trying to shape for their kids."

Mr. Cantor, though, also returned to rearguing the fight over health care reform that Mr. Obama won and the Supreme Court declined to overturn. "Obamacare has unnecessarily raised the cost of health care," he told the AEI. "There are some who would rather avoid fixing the problem in order to save this as a political issue. I reject this notion and call on the president to help lead us toward a bipartisan solution rather than the common political divisions of the past."

Mr. Obama, obviously, will have no interest returning to a fight he won in what was the singular domestic legislative achievement of his first term. Mr. Cantor's desire to wage that battle again hardly indicates a Republican recognition that the party must offer a new face and new attitudes to recover from its November defeat.

All this, along with the candid observations of Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal that the GOP "must stop being the stupid party" and "insulting the intelligence of voters," measures the depth of the ditch the party dug for itself all last year.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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