WASHINGTON – Wherever Sen. Marco Rubio goes, talk of vice president follows — whether he's inadvertently referring to himself as the second in command or insisting to questioners that he'd rather stay in the Senate.
In the morning Thursday, the Florida Republican called himself vice president at a forum sponsored by National Journal, saying, "If I have done a good job as vice president ..." He quickly corrected himself. It was unclear whether the slip was intentional.
Later in the day, he told reporters that he'd prefer to remain in Congress but left open the possibility of an ambitious political future in 2016 or beyond.
"I am really committed to doing a good job in the Senate," Rubio said at a sitdown session with a dozen-plus reporters. "If I do a good job in the Senate, three, four, five, six years from now, I'll have a different opportunity ... to do things inside of government and outside of government."
The Cuban-American and freshman lawmaker has frequently been mentioned as a potential running mate for likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney — and a surefire way for the Republican Party to improve its abysmal standing with Hispanic voters. A Pew Research Center survey out Tuesday showed President Barack Obama with an overwhelming advantage over Romney among Hispanic registered voters, 67-27 percent.
In discussing his immigration legislation with reporters, the 40-year-old Rubio said the vice presidential talk was flattering but that he expects Romney to consider other, more experienced Republicans. He mentioned Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
He also questioned all the attention on the No. 2 job.
"Presidential campaigns are won by the presidential nominee," he said. "I think you pick a vice president because the Constitution says you have to have one. Otherwise I think most of these folks would go it alone."
Amid the GOP struggle to win over Hispanic voters, Rubio is pulling together a bill that would allow young illegal immigrants to remain in the United States but stops short of citizenship.
The measure, still in the works, would permit young illegal immigrants who came to the United States with their parents to apply for non-immigrant visas. They would be allowed to stay in the country to study or work and could obtain a driver's license but would not be able to vote. They later could apply for residency, but they would not have a special path to citizenship.
Romney has said illegal immigrants should return to their home country. Rubio was pressed on the contradiction between his evolving legislation and the candidate's comments.
"All I can tell you is that I think the issue of kids who were brought to this country and here in an undocumented status through no fault of their own, who are high achievers and have much to offer us in the future, I think there's broad bipartisan support for the notion that those kids are in a different category than the vast majority of people who find themselves in this country undocumented," Rubio said.
"And if we can, we should figure out a way to accommodate them. Hopefully we can put something that Gov. Romney would be supportive of," he said.
On a more local front, Rubio said he works closely with fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and "won't say anything negative about" the Democrat. He did say he was counting on Republicans to pick a solid challenger to Nelson in November as the party tries to reclaim control of the Senate.
Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.