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Will Tea Party Star Marco Rubio Get GOP VP Nod?

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., listens at left as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks in Aston, Pa., in April. Republican leaders from Jeb Bush to John McCain have touted Rubio for vice president.
Jae C. Hong
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., listens at left as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks in Aston, Pa., in April. Republican leaders from Jeb Bush to John McCain have touted Rubio for vice president.

Among the Tea Party successes in the 2010 congressional elections was U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. He is now one of those on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's short list of possible running mates.

For any political party, Rubio would be worthy of consideration for vice president or a higher office. He's smart, good-looking and charismatic. The Cuban-American is a plus for Republicans, a party that polls show has been losing ground with Hispanics.

Rubio has been in the Senate less than two years, but while others across the country are still getting to know him, he has long been a familiar face to Floridians. Rubio served a decade in Florida's Legislature where he was House speaker — the first Cuban-American and youngest person ever to hold that office.

Like Barack Obama, another young, charismatic politician, Rubio is a quick study. One reason why respected Republican leaders from Jeb Bush to John McCain have touted him for vice president.

Despite that, the Romney campaign had to tamp down early reports that Rubio wasn't being vetted as a possible running mate. In an unusual announcement, Romney told reporters Rubio was under serious consideration.

Al Cardenas, former chairman of Florida's Republican Party, and now head of the American Conservative Union, recommended Rubio to the Romney campaign based on what he's seen at the group's CPAC gatherings, where the Florida senator has been a star.

"Most of the time, elections are decided by turnout, more so than by polling numbers," Cardenas says. "I believe that Marco's greatest gift to a Romney candidacy will be the passion amongst activists and the impact he'll have on the turnout."

In the Senate, Rubio has made some tough choices. As the body's only Hispanic Republican, he's stood with his party's leadership opposing a measure popular with Latinos: the DREAM Act. It's a bill that would create a path toward permanent residency for young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Rubio says the measure would encourage illegal immigration. In June, President Obama took administrative actions that essentially put in place much of the DREAM Act. Rubio accused him of playing politics with the issue.

As a Hispanic leader, Rubio has worked to carve out his own position on immigration. In his speech to the Hispanic Leadership Network, he said he believed there is bipartisan support for fixing what he calls a "broken legal immigration system."

"And that's why I challenge the Republican nominees and all Republicans to not just be the anti-illegal immigration party. That's not who we are. That's not who we should be. We should be the pro-legal immigration party," he said.

But so far, Rubio's attempts to find middle ground on immigration — one that wins approval from Hispanics but doesn't alienate his Republican base — have gained little traction.

And after nearly two years as a senator and national political figure, it's not clear how much Rubio could do to help Mitt Romney win support among Hispanics.

A survey conducted recently by Latino Decisions, an independent polling group, found that except in Florida, putting Rubio on the presidential ticket would do little to build Hispanic support.

As a politician still new to the national stage, Rubio carries baggage from his days in the Florida Legislature. He's had to address issues including his use of a party credit card for personal expenses. Rubio says he sometimes used the party credit card by mistake for personal items, but never billed the GOP.

Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, says that could make him an awkward running mate for Romney.

"There have already been accusations of the governor [Romney] in terms of his dealings with Bain Capital, in terms of offshore accounts. Well, we've already got somebody who has money issues, if you want to call it that," says Klofstad. "Do we want to add a vice president who may have those as well?"

Among political analysts, the conventional wisdom suggests Romney is likely to go with a safe choice — a running mate who's tested and unlikely to bring any surprises. But Rubio remains an intriguing possibility because of what he represents for the Republican Party. At just 41 years old, Rubio has plenty of time yet to help shape the party's direction.

And in the here and now, some polls show putting Rubio on the ticket could add a couple of points to Romney's support in Florida — enough possibly to win the state in a close election.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.