Washington: In the wake of their electoral drubbing in November, Republicans were seeking an image reboot at President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, a new face that would be both more positive and less strident, youthful and multicultural but also quietly constructive and respectful.
Marco Rubio responds to Obama
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Marco Rubio responds to Obama
Republicans warn that US President Barack Obama's second-term agenda will bring more tax increases and escalate deficit spending, casting the president's policies as impediments to middle-class families.
So it was no surprise they opted for up-and-coming Florida Senator Marco Rubio to deliver their response.
What did raise eyebrows, though, was the decision for Rubio to deliver the speech in two languages - first English, then Spanish.
The speech was a high-risk, potentially high-reward mission for the 41-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, the second-youngest Republican in the chamber.
The new Republican generation?
As one of three Hispanics in the chamber, Republicans see Rubio as their bridge to Hispanic voters and to the young. Republicans say he's well-positioned to help the party woo Latino voters, 71 per cent of whom backed Obama in November.
Critics, though, were quick to point out the Republicans' double standard on the issue.
Last week, when House Republicans tried to begin a broader 'GOP en Espanol' program, which was to distribute Republican reactions to the State of the Union in Spanish, the most vociferous anti-illegal immigration voices in the House objected.
"There's a conflicting message that comes out from the Republicans if we want to recognise the unifying power of English, and meanwhile, we send out communications in multiple languages," Republican Steve King, R-Iowa, told National Journal.
Official business and documents, he said, needed to be in English.
Republican senators hailed Rubio, their new spokesman and 2016 presidential hopeful, in terms that spoke to broader hopes for the party: youth, vitality, thoughtfulness.
Rubio is "a fresh face, but I think he's got a great ability to communicate in a way that people understand," Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in an interview in advance of the speech. "And I think that's what we need right now."
The February 18 cover of Time magazine features Rubio and the headline "The Republican Saviour", spurring criticism from Christian groups and prompting Rubio to post on Twitter, "There is only one saviour, and it is not me. #Jesus."
On the world stage
In his response to the State of the Union, Senator Rubio called on President Barack Obama to "abandon his obsession with raising taxes".
"Raising taxes won't create private sector jobs," Rubio said. "More government isn't going to help you get ahead," he added. "It's going to hold you back."
The senator said his parents weren't millionaires and that they came to the US "because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy."
"So Mr President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich," the senator said. "I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbours."
Elected in 2010 with backing from the conservative, anti-tax Tea Party, Rubio has cultivated a more moderate image over the past two years. He's a leader of a bipartisan Senate effort to rewrite US immigration laws, one of Obama's second-term priorities.
"We need a responsible,permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally," Rubio said tonight. "But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."
His speech covered Republican themes, including opposition to tax increases and a need to overhaul programs such as the Medicare health-care system for the aged.
"I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother," Rubio said. "But anyone who is in favour of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favour of bankrupting it."
However, Rubio drew criticism earlier in the day from women's groups, another constituency that mostly supported Obama in November, for being one of 22 Republicans who voted against legislation today reauthorising the Violence Against Women Act. The measure would provide government programs and aid to victims. The Senate passed the bill 78-22.