Marco Rubio, the charismatic senator from Florida, delivered the official Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
It was no coincidence the GOP chose Rubio to deliver the response, given that he's the party's most visible Latino and a rising star among conservatives. Not to mention, the GOP performed dismally in November among not just Hispanic voters, but minorities in general. This might be why Rubio took a distinctly moderate tone in his address.
"The State of the Union address is always a reminder of how unique America is," he began. "For much of human history, most people were trapped in stagnant societies, where a tiny minority always stayed on top, and no one else even had a chance. But America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious, and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them."
The junior senator, whose rise to fame has been compared to Obama's, is widely thought to be considering a 2016 presidential run and the speech gave him an opportunity to address a national audience.
There were definite overtures to the Hispanic community. In a historic first, Rubio delivered his remarks in both English and Spanish. And while the Cuban-American spent the bulk of his address talking about the need to strengthen the middle class, he wove personal stories of his immigrant past into his remarks.
Rubio's parents immigrated to the United States and then worked their way to the middle class. His upbringing was a far cry from the wealthy childhood of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and he took pains to point that out.
"My parents immigrated here in pursuit of the opportunity to improve their life and give their children the chance at an even better one," Rubio said. "They made it to the middle class."
"I didn't inherit any money from them," he said. "But I inherited something far better – the real opportunity to accomplish my dreams."
Rubio, a member of the Senate "gang of eight" working on immigration reform, supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that is contingent on securing the border. Although he spoke about that in general terms:
"We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world's best and brightest," he said. "We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally."
Some in the Republican Party have dubbed the Senate immigration framework "amnesty." With that in mind, it appeared Rubio framed his immigration message to appeal to a broad swath of the GOP.
And he did so convincingly. Speaking directly after a gifted orator like Obama is no easy task, especially considering the built-in prestige of holding the title of commander-in-chief. Rubio, aside from one awkward lunge for a water bottle, tackled the job with poise.
The Florida senator took the opportunity to toss a few accusations at the president, too.
"This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it's just not true," he said, criticizing Obama's handling of the economy.
"More government isn't going to create more opportunities," Rubio continued. "It's going to limit them."
Rubio also lashed out at the president's healthcare plan and criticized the White House for promoting "devastating cuts to our military."
One of the most poignant moments of Obama's State of the Union address came when he spoke about the Newtown shooting victims and called for smart gun laws. While Rubio also took a moment to pay tribute to the victims, he cautioned against placing too many restrictions on gun owners.
"We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country," he said. "But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it."
Did he succeed in presenting a vision of his party as more than just the realm of older, white men? That much remains up to the voters, and it will take more than one speech, but he delivered the Republican response with confidence.
"Now, let that hope bring us together again," he concluded with a smile, "to solve the challenges of our time and write the next chapter in the amazing story of the greatest nation man has ever known."