As the Republican frontrunners battled for the vote in Florida, the primary race seemed to be as much about the state's freshman senator, Marco Rubio, as about the candidates themselves.
He's the posterboy for a demographic coveted by the GOP: a telegenic Tea Party favorite and a Latino. And despite being both young and a freshman among Washington, D.C., power brokers, he exerts outsized influence.
Republican leaders listened when he called on them to shift the tone of the increasingly acrimonious immigration debate. Several candidates have spoken of him as a potential vice-presidential pick. And when he rebuked former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich over a campaign ad that accused former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney of being "anti-immigrant," Gingrich immediately yanked the offensive language.
Now, as the race moves out of Florida and away from Rubio's conservative Cuban-American base, the question becomes whether his influence fades.
The answer, knowledgeable political insiders and observers insist, is no.
"He's more than a star ascendant," Sally Bradshaw, a Republican political strategist and senior adviser to Romney's 2008 campaign, told The Huffington Post. "His involvement at some level will be critical to the success of our nominee in the general [election] and to defeating Obama. I think Hispanics are the swing vote in this cycle and having his involvement will make all the difference in the fall."
Rubio rose to national prominence barely two years ago, when he ran an unorthodox U.S. Senate campaign that rallied Tea Party conservatives and Hispanic voters so effectively that it ran the presumptive "establishment" Republican candidate, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, right out of the party.
Speculation about Rubio as a potential VP pick began even before Romney and Gingrich emerged as the frontrunners. The Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel described how Gingrich threw out the possibility of Rubio as a vice-presidential candidate at a campaign stop just before Florida's primary:
"I'm not going to get into the vice president. First we have to win the nomination," he said in response to a shout from the audience about his vice presidential preference.
"Rubio!" shouted a man in the crowd.
"But I will say that you have a U.S. senator here who looks awfully good," agreed Gingrich.
The reasons are obvious, Florida International University political analyst Kathryn DePalo told HuffPost.
"Everybody's looking to win Florida," she said, "and what better way than to get Marco Rubio as your VP: He's attractive, he's Cuban, he's from Florida, he's Tea Party supported -- all these particular things. I think he's still vital in this discussion."
As they stumped across the state, Gingrich and Romney both sought his endorsement. But Rubio insisted on staying on the sidelines, although not above the fray. He waded in vociferously to insist that the candidates -- and the party as a whole -- drop the harsh campaign talk about immigration issues that was alienating Hispanics across the country and earning them an "anti-immigrant" label.
"We must admit there are those among us that have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable and inexcusable. And we must admit, myself included, that sometimes we've been too slow to condemn that language for what it is," Rubio said last week at a gathering of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a powerful conservative group.
"I challenge the Republican nominees, and all Republicans, to not just be the anti-illegal immigration party," he continued. "That's not who we are and that's not who we should be. We should be the pro-legal immigration party."
That take on immigration issues -- and his own personal connection to immigrants -- could be hugely significant in states with large Latino populations, both during the primary process and, more importantly, during the general election.
"I think he has a story to tell. He has the immigrant background," Hessy Fernandez, former national hispanic spokesperson for the McCain-Palin '08 campaign and for the Republican National Committee, told The Huffington Post. "His parents came to this country looking for a better life for them and their family. And I think that appeals not only to Cuban Americans but also to other Hispanics."
As well known and influential as he is within Florida, however, Rubio's recognition wattage fades quickly beyond the state's borders. A Pew Hispanic Research Center survey released at the end of December found that more than half of the nation's registered Latino voters had never heard of him, couldn't rate him or answered "don't know."
Nonetheless, Rubio's a powerful and skilled orator, able to bridge distinct, vitally important groups: Tea Party conservatives and Hispanics. He already has recognition with party leaders and the candidates. And, of course, increased public recognition will come simply through an increased exposure as a spokesman for the GOP.
"I think he's going to have a voice," Fernandez said. "I think whoever the Republican nominee is going to listen to him. Not only on immigration, but on other issues like the economy, foreign trade, foreign policy. And I think he's going to have a very important role in the upcoming election."
Part of that importance comes from the influence of Hispanics in the coming election and beyond. The GOP recognizes that attracting Latinos is vital to the party's future. Already at 16 percent of the population and some 22 million eligible voters, Hispanics are the nation's fastest growing demographic. By 2050, they're expected to represent 30 percent of the population.
That is the reason, strategists have said, why Rubio is the perfect vice-presidential pick for the nominee and the GOP.
"I think any nominee would have to give him serious consideration," Bradshaw said. "I mean, he's the total package: He's smart, he's articulate, his conservative credentials are without question. He's done a wonderful job in Washington representing Florida and he has been a student of the process there. And I think his ties to the Hispanic community are so important in terms of the challenge we face in the fall."
Rubio, however, has repeatedly insisted he doesn't want to be vice president. And, of course, the eventual Republican nominee might always choose someone else.
But no matter who the vice presidential pick is, Bradshaw said, Rubio's influence within the GOP is almost certain to continue to be felt.
"I think," she said, "even absent the vice-presidential pick, he has the potential to be hugely significant in the process."