WASHINGTON -– Marco Rubio's speech Tuesday night elevated him to the national stage, but also presented him with his first real test on the long and winding road to the 2016 presidential election.
Rubio, who has enjoyed reams of positive attention since the November night that Mitt Romney's electoral loss exposed the GOP's terrible relationship with Hispanic voters, came under some of the harshest attacks he has experienced on the national level in the hours leading up to, and following, his remarks.
And, thanks to a case of dry mouth, he also had the first truly embarrassing gaffe of his national political career.
In addition, the 41-year old Florida senator, chosen by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the election last fall to give the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, invited an extra layer of critiques by voting against a bill named the Violence Against Women Act earlier on Tuesday. Rubio said he wanted to see a different version of VAWA pass, but on a day when he was under a magnifying lens, the vote gave Democrats another arrow to shoot at the man Time magazine called "The Republican Savior."
In his remarks, Rubio hit two things hard: stereotypes of conservatives, and the president. He came out against the former stronger than the latter, devoting an entire passage to rebutting the charge that Republicans want to protect the rich from higher taxes, and another to making clear his devotion to Medicare, in an attempt to stake out a politically viable position on entitlement reform.
"Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren’t millionaires. They’re retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare," Rubio said, arguing that Obama's "tax increases and deficit spending" will hurt the middle class.
"Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors," Rubio said. Rubio also spoke of how his parents, both immigrants from Cuba, have depended on government entitlement programs.
"One of these programs, Medicare, is especially important to me. It provided my father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity. And it pays for the care my mother receives now," Rubio said. "I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother. But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favor of bankrupting it."
Rubio called for a balanced budget amendment, and criticized Obama for having an "obsession with raising taxes."
Rubio also delivered his remarks in Spanish, pre-taping them so that Spanish-language TV channels could carry his remarks at the same time he delivered them live in English.
The media-savvy Republican got favorable reviews, but his night was almost derailed by a bottle of water. When Rubio came to the 10-minute mark in his 14-minute speech, he paused, looked down and to his left, and then looked back at the camera as he bent and reached for a small Poland Spring bottle. For a few brief, excruciating seconds, Rubio took a sip of the water as he looked directly into the camera, and then put it quickly down and resumed speaking.
Twitter exploded. Video of the moment was quickly posted, Democratic operatives cackled, and journalists complained about the volume of chatter about Rubio's thirst.
Rubio laughed it off, posting a picture of an almost empty bottle -– apparently the one he drank from on-camera -– to Twitter a few minutes after he finished speaking. He'll have to laugh the moment off again, but his willingness to chuckle at himself has already set him apart from most other Republicans.
The starkest contrast between the Rubio and Obama speeches was in tone and emphasis. Rubio's message was oriented toward a vision of economic growth as the engine that lifts middle class and lower-income Americans. He critiqued the president's vision of a government-formatted private sector.
"This opportunity -– to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life -– it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington," Rubio said. "It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business."
Obama delivered his standard lines about the need for more efficient government: "It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government."
The president's point of view originated in government action. He tried, as he often has for years, to strike a balance between talking about goals that Republicans share and often consider their turf, but through the means of government action.
"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours," Obama said.
Rubio came under attack from the Democrats well ahead of his speech. On Monday, Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz hosted a conference call to begin the counteroffensive to Rubio's rebuttal. Wasserman-Schultz went after Rubio on Medicare. But even here, Rubio's political fortunes seemed charmed. Most of the headlines from the call focused on Wasserman-Schultz's attempt to pass off a Democratic operative as a "Medicare recipient from Florida."
Nonetheless, in the hours before Rubio's address, the DNC hammered away at Rubio, sending out a release headlined, "Rubio knows nothing about the middle or class."
The DNC accused Rubio of "siding with the Tea Party over Florida's families," sending along what was essentially an opposition research dump on Rubio from the Florida Democratic party.
Rubio's speech was weakest when it came to specifics, particularly on the gun debate.
"We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country. But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it," Rubio said. He offered no details of how the nation should respond to tragedies like the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave the third speech of the night, labeled the Tea Party response. Paul, considered likely to run for president as well in 2016, blasted both Democrats and Republicans for perpetuating the growth of government.
"Both parties have been guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of backroom deals in which everyone up here wins, but every taxpayer loses," Paul said. "It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud."
But Paul's most visceral criticism was of the president, who he obliquely accused of acting "as if he were a king" and who he took to task for approving drone strikes overseas of suspected terrorists who are American citizens, such as Anwar al-Awlaki.
"We will not tolerate secret lists of American citizens who can be killed without trial," Paul said.
Paul, whose father Ron Paul is a former Texas congressman who ran for president in 2008 and 2012, included lines in his speech aimed at softening the GOP's harsh image among Hispanics.
"We must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future. We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities," Paul said.
But it's Rubio who has the upper hand in making that argument, and who also possesses vastly superior communications skills. Comparisons between Rubio and Paul are, at this point, not based in political reality. Yet the conservative wing of the party will watch Rubio for signs of going wobbly. At this early point, there's no indications that they see any.