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Rubio on rise within Republican Party, in post-election vacuum

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FILE: Nov. 17, 2012: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's annual birthday fundraiser in Altoona, Iowa.AP

Marco Rubio is taking center stage as Republicans search for a new leader.

In the nearly 100 days since President Barack Obama won a second term, the Florida senator has made calculated, concrete steps to emerge as a next-generation leader of a rudderless party, put a 21st-century stamp on the conservative movement and potentially position himself for a future presidential run.

The bilingual Cuban-American lawmaker has become Republicans' point person on immigration reform and pitches economic solutions at middle-class workers. He is an evangelist for a modern, inclusive party that welcomes more Hispanics and minorities but says Republicans must stay true to their principles.

"In a way, he's trying to save us from ourselves," says Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union who gave Rubio his first job in politics -- as a South Florida field staffer during Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "He gives us comfort against the naysayers who say we need to change our basic beliefs to attract a wider audience."

Rubio will give the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, a rebuttal that Rubio advisers say will offer economic prescriptions for a sluggish economy and counter what they call Obama's government-centered economic approach.

The speech comes as demand for the 41-year-old son of immigrants has soared and the party has tried to recover from significant electoral losses and map out a path ahead.

Call it the "it" factor. Time magazine splashed Rubio on its cover this week, anointing him "The Republican Savior." Rubio, a Catholic, responded on Twitter: "There is only one savior, and it is not me. (hash)Jesus". He shrugged off the label during an interview with The Associated Press: "I didn't write the cover. I wouldn't have said it if I wrote it."

"There are no saviors in politics," he said.

The former Florida House speaker has been on a Republican rocket ship since 2010, when he knocked off Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in a Senate race that showed the tea party's clout. He introduced presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention.