Barely an hour after Mitt Romney conceded the presidential election Wednesday morning, Marco Rubio laid down his marker for 2016: No, he wouldn't be the candidate of the tired old white guy.
"The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it," the GOP Florida senator posted on his Facebook page at 2:16 a.m. "And Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them."
This is indisputably Rubio's moment, and how the 41-year-old senator and the most prominent Latino in national politics today carries his party's demographic burden will define not only his own future -- but the future of the Republican Party. He was the biggest Republican winner Tuesday, Republicans will tell you, as it became painfully clear that Romney would carry only 27 percent of the nation's fastest-growing demographic.
Now, as fingers are pointed and blame is assigned, all eyes are on Rubio to help lead his party out of the political abyss with Hispanic voters. As Rubio positions himself for a 2016 run, his advisers are adamant that he not become merely the Latino candidate but a conservative leader with a compelling voice who can articulate to Hispanics that the Republican Party's values are their values -- family, social conservatism, free-market entrepreneurialism.
"He is without question a world-class political talent with the ability to lead the party into the 21st century ... a party that has become synonymous with intolerance and loons to too many swing voters," said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who ran Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
"You know the media and the party -- everyone is looking at this lifeboat with Marco written on the side of it and everyone wants to jump in," said GOP political strategist Alex Castellanos. "We better be careful or we're gonna sink it. We're going to take one of our greatest assets and pigeonhole and typecast him. We need to move the conversation to the next generation, and he's one of the people who understand that we have to be the party of hope."
Rubio and his advisers are well aware of the risks: He must thread a needle as he tries to portray an open, tolerant party while not incensing the ultraconservative base who want tall fences, closed borders and nothing that looks like amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Rubio is already testing the national waters -- he's heading to an Iowa fundraiser next week -- so he's well aware of the complexity of moving the party to the left on immigration while appealing to the conservatives who rule the Republican primary process.
Rubio seems likely to approach potential immigration talks from a biographical standpoint. The son of working-class, Cuban-born parents, the bilingual senator often speaks of how his mom and dad toiled for decades as a hotel maid and bartender after moving to America, longing for a better future for their children.
"He is well-positioned to be a leader on this issue -- but it will take courage and he can't do it alone," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
"This is a very, very dangerous area for Rubio if he has national aspirations," said Roy Beck, head of the anti-immigration group Numbers USA. "You've had Republicans trying to do this in the past that really lost their status in the party once they did it."
Rubio also has a potential problem inside the Senate. Two of the top Senate Republicans -- Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas -- are up for reelection in 2014 and have to be worried about a tea party primary challenge if they fire up the base on immigration.
In an interview with POLITICO last summer, Rubio made clear that he would like to move past immigration reform so that he can relay a broader message to the Latino community about his party. "If we could just get past that gateway issue of immigration policy and what it means about us as Republicans, I think we have a very compelling story to tell about how our economic policies are better for the Hispanic community than the Democrats' economic policies," he said.
"I think it's a gateway issue, [which] in many ways, sends a signal about how a political movement, a candidate or a group of individuals feels about another group of people."
The numbers behind the 2012 election tell the story of the party's demographic challenge.
President George W. Bush, who was a strong voice for comprehensive immigration reform, won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 and 35 percent in 2000. Romney took only 27 percent Tuesday.
"What I urge my Republican colleagues to do is to understand we have a demographic problem, the rhetoric around immigration has led to our reduction in Hispanic votes," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told POLITICO.
While Rubio will most likely be the GOP's point man on immigration on the Hill, Bush's brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also is expected to help bridge the gap with Hispanics.
"They both have the stature and the credibility, and they both have the messaging talents to deal with an issue that has been a difficult issue for our party to drive consensus," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the grass-roots American Conservative Union and a close friend of both men.
"A bipartisan version of the DREAM Act is not at this time the appropriate remedy," he added. "We need to get this whole wedge issue off the table in order to be true competitors for that vote."
Rubio declined to be interviewed. But spokesman Alex Conant said his boss had spent most of the year developing an alternative to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's DREAM Act and would try to pass it in the new Congress "if the Democrats are serious about permanently addressing the status of undocumented young people."
Rubio never introduced legislation this year, but his ideas would give "non-immigrant" visas to undocumented children brought to the United States at an early age provided they have no criminal record and have completed high school. It would allow them to stay in the country and access the existing immigration system through which they could eventually become green-card holders or naturalized citizens.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's elections, many Republicans believe they need to recalibrate and listen to Rubio. But while Rubio may be able to sway his Senate colleagues, his influence among House members is less certain.
"My gut is there are not too many Republicans who have been against comprehensive reform who will change positions," said longtime pro-immigration activist Rick Swartz, who founded the National Immigration Forum. Reform "is easy to talk about but harder to get it done."
Rubio, who early on had been mentioned as a possible Romney running mate, played the role of surrogate and loyal foot soldier during this year's presidential campaign. From April to November, Rubio stumped for Romney at nearly 60 events -- in virtually all the battleground states, including states with big Latino populations such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado. He also provided star power for another 40 fundraisers and campaign events for Senate Republican candidates in states from Massachusetts to Nebraska.
The rigorous schedule kept his name in the news, raised his profile in key states and gave him a taste of a presidential campaign. As the GOP searches for a new standard-bearer for 2016, Rubio is continuing to make moves toward a possible run, wooing party leaders and voters in the all-important primary state of Iowa.
On Nov. 17, Rubio will headline the annual birthday fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad at the Palace Theater in Altoona. He stumped for Romney in the Des Moines area back in July. And at the invitation of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Rubio addressed nearly 200 members of a Des Moines business group in May during their annual visit to Washington.
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