The Republican race for President is wide open. But the party has already settled on its vice presidential nominee: freshman Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio spoke at the Reagan Library last week at the personal invitation of Nancy Reagan. During his speech, he remarked, "The reality is, I'm not going to be the vice presidential nominee..." At which point a man in the audience shouted, "Wanna bet?" The audience responded with whoops and cheers.
If you asked a computer to design the perfect Republican candidate for vice president, it would come up with Rubio. He's got three big things going for him. He's a Tea Party favorite. He's Latino. And he's from Florida.
Plus a few smaller things. He's young (40 years old). He's the son of working-class immigrants. He's an impressive speaker. He's close to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In last year's Senate race, he defeated popular incumbent governor Charlie Crist (in fact, he drove Crist out of the Republican Party).
Then there's the 2012 Republican convention. It will be held in Tampa, Florida, where Rubio is certain to give a prime-time speech. When's the last time a prime-time convention speech propelled an obscure political figure into national stardom? That would be Barack Obama in 2004. And the time before that? John F. Kennedy in 1956.
There are some potential negatives, of course. Rubio doesn't have much of a legislative record even though he served in the Florida House of Representatives for nine years, two of them as Speaker. There are some lingering controversies over his financial records. And he's Cuban-American, not Mexican-American.
Cuban-Americans are only three percent of the nation's Latino population. Because they come from a communist country, Cuban-Americans enjoy a privileged immigration status. Like most Tea Party Republicans, Rubio takes a tough line on illegal immigration. That has opened him up to criticism from some Latino activists.
At a time when the leading Republican candidates for President are pandering to the Tea Party base, Rubio did an interesting thing at the Reagan Library. He did not deliver a Tea Party speech. There was no fiery "us" versus "them" rhetoric. There was no angry denunciation of big government. He did not call President Obama rude names. Rubio delivered a mainstream conservative speech that appealed to moderate voters. It was a Reaganite speech, marked by the great man's generosity of spirit.
Rubio lamented the growth of government more in sorrow than in anger: "Today, we have built for ourselves a government that not even the richest and most prosperous nation on the face of the earth can fund or afford to pay for. An extraordinarily tragic accomplishment."
Rubio did not impugn the motives or the loyalty of Democrats. Asked how he would turn "our liberal friends" away from government spending, Rubio responded, "I think they are Americans who love their country, who want a nation of prosperity and compassion, who think government is the only institution that can do that... It's not because they're ill-intentioned and they don't love America. It's because they're wrong."
In his writings and speeches, Presidential frontrunner Rick Perry has dismissed George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" as unwarranted. Perry wrote in his book, Fed Up, "The branding of compassionate conservatism meant that the GOP was sending the wrong signal, that conservatism alone wasn't sufficient, or worse yet, was somehow flawed and had to be re-branded."
Rubio spoke approvingly of the American people's desire for "a compassionate America." He called it a "well-intentioned" vision that "was doomed to fail from the start"' because it relied on big government as the agency to deliver compassion.
Rubio defined a role for government that was positive but strictly limited. "The goal of our public policy should be growth," Rubio said -- not management of the distribution of wealth. He said government should invest in infrastructure for the purpose of economic development, "not as a jobs program."
On Social Security and Medicare, Rubio said, "I believe in America's retirement programs," but they are not sustainable for future generations. "We must embrace public policy changes to these programs." President Obama has said the same thing.
Rubio even echoed Bill Clinton and Al Gore when he said, "We do need a safety net, but it cannot be a way of life."
Is Rubio the second coming of compassionate conservatism? "I don't really like labels in politics," Rubio told the crowd, "but I will gladly accept the label of conservatism. Conservatism is not about leaving people behind. Conservatism is about empowering people to catch up."
At a time when conservatism seems to be becoming more rigid and doctrinaire, Rubio is pulling the party in a more expansive direction. Which means he would provide balance for just about any Republican at the top of the ticket.
Would Rubio accept the nomination? Of course he would. The vice presidency is like the last cookie on the plate. Nobody ever wants it. But somebody always takes it.