Why Marco Rubio has a tight grip on the GOP's future

The Republican vice presidential sweepstakes is swinging fast these days. It's playing out everywhere from Florida (think Sen. Marco Rubio)  to Wisconsin (think Rep. Paul Ryan). But win or lose this time around Rubio has a tight grip on the party’s future because he is the great Latino hope for a party that desperately needs the Latino vote to avoid sinking into oblivion.

Rubio has been called the “crown prince of the Tea Party” and the “Michael Jordan of Republican Politics.”

GOP stalwarts like Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin and John McCain have all expressed enthusiasm for the idea of adding Rubio’s star power to the ticket.

Just this week, influential conservative Congressman Steve King of Iowa praised the idea, saying Rubio “speaks to my heart in a way that I think is important. He understands ... about the pillars of American exceptionalism, the underpinnings of what made this a great country.”

In a statement thanking Rubio for his endorsement last week, the likely GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, praised him, too, saying that “Marco Rubio is living proof that the American dream is still very much alive.”

Yet with Shermanesque certitude, Rubio told me in an exclusive interview for Fox News Latino: “I’m not going to be the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party. I’m not going to be asked to be the vice presidential nominee.”

He added that the votes of Latinos need to be earned because immigration “is a personal issue -- you’re talking about their mother, their father, their brother, someone they love.”

“It’s hard to make an economic argument to people who think you want to deport their grandmother.”

In the days since our interview, it occurs to me that Rubio may understand something that his most enthusiastic promoters do not fully grasp.

Putting someone with a Latino surname on the GOP ticket does not guarantee that Latinos will vote for that ticket. -- No more than putting a woman on the ticket would lock up the women’s vote for the GOP.

Too often, the Beltway media and political class view the Hispanic population as monolithic.

They do not appreciate the diversity that exists within the Latino community.  It is a patchwork of distinct, proud people with their own unique cultures, traditions and life experiences. Latinos in America are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Spaniards, Dominicans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Panamanians and Cubans.

According to the 2010 census, the U.S. Hispanic population is comprised of 63 percent Mexicans, 9.2 Puerto Ricans, 3.5 Cubans and 3.3 Salvadorans.

Cubans are a minority within the Hispanic community. Moreover, they are heavily concentrated in the state of Florida, specifically Miami (the city where Rubio was born).

To be fair , a national Fox News Latino poll taken February found that 24 percent of likely Latino voters said they are more likely to vote Republican if Senator Rubio is on the ballot.

Note carefully the wording of the poll: “More likely to vote Republican.” It was not “will vote Republican.”

Keep in mind that the GOP ticket will be starting from a considerable deficit with Hispanics.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Barack Obama won the Latino vote by 36 points in 2008. And that was when he ran against John McCain, who was a champion of humane, comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill.

Right now, Rubio opposes the federal DREAM Act, as it currently written, but he wants a compromise that would halt deportation of children of illegal immigrants without giving them citizenship.

Polling shows that 90 percent of Latinos support the DREAM Act as it currently stands.

Then there are also questions about whether Rubio’s family can legitimately be called “Cuban exiles.”

Last year, the St. Petersburg Times and The Washington Post reported that Rubio's parents had left Cuba in 1956, not in 1959 after Fidel Castro came to power, as Rubio had previously claimed.

An upcoming biography of the young Senator will delve deeper in to this question. Rubio has moved up publication of his own book so that it will be released on the same day as the biography.

I asked Rubio about the controversy and he admitted he got the date of his parents’ exile wrong.

“My parents were never able to return to Cuba,” he said. “That option was taken off the table. They identified as exiles, they raised us as exiles. I was raised in a community of exiles. I did get the date wrong. I didn’t know. As soon as I knew, I stopped saying the wrong date. It doesn’t change the fundamental aspects of my story.”

Regardless of the exact year his parents left Cuba, Rubio’s story is genuinely inspiring.

He describes the experience of American immigrants with as much conviction and passion as any politician I have ever heard.

“To me, the story of immigration...the story of the Hispanic community, is the aspirations for a better life” Rubio told me. “The sacrifices so that your children would have opportunities you didn’t have. I didn’t read about in a magazine article. I’m surrounded by it every single day of my entire life.”

Even if he is not the vice presidential nominee this time around, GOP convention planners would be ‘Mucho Loco’ not to ask Rubio to tell this story to the nation in the keynote address in Tampa Bay this August.

Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in 2011.