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Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and the Republican Soul

Maybe, in a rare exception, being on the cover of Time won’t be a jinx.

Just before giving his party’s official response to the State of the Union address — equal to the cover of Time as a jinxed opportunity — Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was hailed in the magazine as “The Republican Savior.” Any profile that begins with an interview with Mom can’t help but be more fawning than laudatory. Note that the cover line doesn’t end with a question mark.

There’s no question the party needs saving. Former savior and current Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana says it has gone “stupid,” while superstrategist Karl Rove’s new mission is to keep “stupid” candidates from running. But it’s Rubio who best surfs the demographic wave that threatens to engulf the party as its most reliable voters (old white men) grow ever older. He’s Hispanic, young and has his own Spotify playlist.

The hype would put anyone under a lot of pressure. It finally got to Rubio precisely 11 minutes into his State of the Union response last week, when he found himself with a dry mouth and a bottle of water tantalizingly out of frame. Keeping his eyes glued to the camera, he went for it. You’d think he’d poured it over his head like Gatorade at the Super Bowl. Anything he said was lost as the video of Rubio’s reach went viral.

Virtuous virality

Rather than let it pull him down, Rubio — like Bill Clinton in 1988, who went on Johnny Carson’s show to poke fun at his own rambling speech at that year’s Democratic National Convention — found a way to make the moment work for him. He took his sip-up on the road, taking a swig on the morning talk shows after posting a picture of his bottle of water on Twitter. He even used his Sip Seen Around the World to raise money for his political-action committee.

Rubio’s competition is thin. Currently the unsmiling face of Sen. John McCain of Arizona and the pursed lips of his sidekick, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, dominate the airwaves. Rather than counter the bad taste left by failed presidential nominee Mitt Romney, McCain is doubling down. He has had his “Get off my lawn” sign out front since President Barack Obama beat him in 2008, and he planted it even deeper after Obama’s re-election.

Using the tragic death of four Americans in Benghazi to justify their choler, McCain and Graham helped scuttle United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s potential nomination to be secretary of state. McCain then transferred his bile to former friend and Sen. Chuck Hagel, the president’s nominee for secretary of defense. In a burst of unintended honesty, McCain admitted why he was so vehemently against Hagel, noting how “mercilessly” Hagel attacked President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq. “He was anti- his own party and people — people don’t forget that,” McCain said. “You can disagree but if you’re disagreeable, then people don’t forget that.” He could have been talking about himself.

Despite their camera time, McCain and to a lesser extent Graham represent the safe Republican district known as Yesterday. Rubio represents Tomorrow — but he isn’t the only Republican vying to be the party’s savior.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is sweaty with ambition, devoid of charm, and utterly certain he’s the smartest man in the room. In homage to McCain in his maiden appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, Cruz talked over everyone, as he reportedly does in party caucus meetings.

Denying climate change and questioning Hagel’s loyalty, Cruz panders to the most know-nothing wing of his party, despite his degrees from Princeton and Harvard. Although he himself has never served in the military, Cruz was reportedly worried about Purple-Heart winner John Kerry’s commitment to it, voting against his nomination for secretary of state. Not even the foul-tempered McCain did that.

Smooth sensitivity

Rubio’s smooth rise from city council to statehouse to Senate to presidential contender got a boost over the weekend when USA Today published details of the White House’s back-up plan for immigration. Rubio has a thin line to walk: As his immigrant mother’s son, he has to show understanding of hard-working and ill-treated immigrants. But he can’t be so understanding as to lose the right wing of his party.

So what did he say about the president’s modest plan? “Dead on arrival,” Rubio declared. He should have added, “Thank you, Mr. President.” On immigration, there may not be much difference between Rubio and Obama. But Rubio will now make it look like there is. As a consequence, things are looking up for a comprehensive reform bill from the Senate — and for Rubio’s ability to keep Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity neutralized.

Rubio made one mistake in the past week. Of his water blooper, he said, “God has a funny way of reminding us we’re human.” This suggests he may have taken that Time cover a bit seriously. If there’s anything worse than believing your own headlines, it’s bringing the Almighty into it. Politically speaking, Rubio was able to turn water into wine. He does not, however, walk on water.

Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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