If US presidential politics is largely about being in the right place at the right time, then Marco Rubio most certainly is.
His party – ever more the preserve of ageing white males and shunned by key voting groups such as the young and Hispanics – screams for renewal. And cometh the hour, cometh the man. “The Republican Savior” proclaims the cover of Time magazine’s latest issue – and indeed, many in the party pin their hopes on the young, Hispanic, and indisputably talented junior senator from Florida.
Mr Rubio’s ascent has been fast. At the age of 28, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. Aged just 31, he became that body’s first Cuban-American speaker. In 2010, he toppled the favourite to win Florida’s then open US Senate seat. Just two years later, aged 41, he was on Mitt Romney’s shortlist of vice-presidential running mates.
Tonight he will have his most important stage yet as he delivers the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. In case anyone missed the point, Mr Rubio will make his remarks in English and Spanish. The occasion represents both an opportunity and a risk for a man expected to make a White House run of his own in 2016. A strong performance would raise his profile further.
But as Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor who delivered the Republican response in 2009 can testify, success is not guaranteed. Like Mr Rubio now, Mr Jindal was seen as his party’s next great thing. But his wooden performance was deemed a flop. That verdict might have been unfair, given the near-impossibility of upstaging the newly installed Mr Obama, then at the zenith of his popularity. But talk of a Jindal presidential bid in 2012 vanished overnight. He may yet run in 2016 – but first must lay to rest the ghosts of that unhappy evening.
Mr Rubio will have taken that lesson to heart. He also has advantages that the Louisiana governor four years ago did not. Above all, his appeal is across the party – not just to party elders, but also to the Tea Party. Although not formally of the Tea Party, his conservative economic and social views have endeared him to it. The exception is immigration – the issue which has so alienated Hispanic voters – where he has emerged as a leading Republican advocate of reform.