Rubio's Republican response to highlight rise in party, show smarts voters seek

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

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

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is only a freshman senator, but his voter appeal and Cuban-American heritage -- combined with his focus on immigration reform and other key issues -- have made him a rising star in the Republican Party.

His ascension from junior Florida senator into the upper echelon of the party will be highlighted Tuesday night when he gives the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

“Senator Rubio’s rise in the party has as much to do with his youth and ethnicity as it does with his intelligence and common-sense policy positions,” said Tyler Harber, a Republican strategist and partner in Harcom Strategies International. “Republicans realize their weakness lies with reaching younger and non-white voters. Rubio presents an opportunity to the party to coalesce around a leader who can bridge the divide.”  

Time magazine recently put Rubio on its cover with the headline "The Republican Savior" and called him the new voice of the Republican Party.

Harber says Rubio also possesses a common-sense approach to issues that generally divide conservative and moderate wings of the party and nation. 

Rubio has authored bipartisan jobs legislation, has plans for legislation on education and small business and has crafted an immigration plan likely to draw bipartisan support.

“I know both sides of this coin firsthand,” Rubio said last month on the Senate floor. “I didn't watch some movie last week about immigration. I lived this issue on a daily basis. I live in a family of immigrants, married into a family of immigrants, in a neighborhood of immigrants.”

Still, Rubio knows he must walk a political tightrope on the issue -- trying to show the welcoming face of the party on legal immigration while firmly discouraging illegal immigration.     

He is expected to talk Tuesday night about a range of issues on which he's taken firm positions, including jobs, spending and taxes.

“He’s tried to walk the line between Tea Party and the establishment sides of the Republican Party, often offering a third position on policies that both groups can embrace,” Harber said.

Though Rubio was elected in 2010 as part of the Tea Party movement that helped Republicans take control of the House and is still referred to as the "crown prince” of the movement, Republican Sen. Rand Paul will give the official Tea Party response.

The Kentucky senator will give his response to the president’s remarks a few minutes after Rubio.

Fox News reporter Jim Angle contributed to this report.