Feb 15, 2013 - By George Bennett, MCT News ServicePALM BEACH, Fla. -- Does Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have the bipartisan appeal to succeed on the national stage?
Does he have the salivary glands?
Those were among the questions ricocheting Wednesday after potential 2016 presidential candidate and Time magazine-anointed "Republican Savior" Rubio delivered Tuesday night's GOP response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
Rubio's 15-minute speech lauded free enterprise and limited government, called for a "responsible, permanent solution" on immigration and warned against "unconstitutionally undermining" the Second Amendment.
But what instantly set the Internet ablaze was the junior senator's bout with xerostomia, or dry mouth, about 11 minutes into his remarks and his awkward lunge for an off-camera water bottle to slake his thirst.
Internet wags quickly gave the episode labels like "watergate" or "aqua lunge" or "the Big Gulp."
Rubio poked fun at himself afterward, immediately posting a picture of the 8-ounce Poland Spring bottle on Twitter and hoisting bottled water during network TV appearances Wednesday morning.
"I needed water --what am I going to do? You know, it happens. God has a funny way of reminding us we're human," a smiling Rubio said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
The Democratic National Committee, which held a conference call Monday to rip Rubio in advance of his speech, slammed Rubio again Wednesday. The DNC news release featured a picture of a Poland Spring bottle --but said Rubio's problems went beyond dry mouth.
"It wasn't just about the famous water lunge," said the DNC release. "Sen. Marco Rubio's response to the State of the Union was most notable for how much it sounded like the very same failed policies that Republicans have been running on for years if not decades --the same failed set of ideas that Mitt Romney ran for president on just last year as the GOP's standard-bearer."
Republican consultant David Johnson of Tallahassee agreed that Rubio didn't break new policy ground, but said what was more significant was that the GOP presented a fresh face and that Rubio further introduced himself to people outside Florida.
"Consider the messenger. ... It wasn't so much a case of new policy or new proposals. He is a new person to an awful lot of people --Republicans and independents and Democrats, as well, who are going to be determining who is going to be the next president," Johnson said.
Rubio, a 41-year-old bilingual son of a bartender and store clerk who were Cuban immigrants, represented a contrast from the 65-year-old businessman Romney, who as the frontman for the GOP in 2012 was attacked by Obama and Democrats as an out-of-touch rich guy.
Rubio noted his humble upbringing in West Miami, mentioned that he only recently paid off his student loans and used the phrase "middle class" 16 times in his speech. All of it was a tacit acknowledgement that Obama and Democrats succeeded last year in portraying themselves as more in tune with middle-class voters.
Without mentioning Romney, Rubio also addressed the Democratic criticism that frequently stung the wealthy GOP nominee last year.
Rubio said Obama's "favorite attack of all is that those who don't agree with him ... only care about rich people."
Said Rubio: "Mr. President, I still live in the same working class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren't millionaires. ... I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors."
If Rubio launches a 2016 presidential bid, his speech probably helped with the GOP's conservative base, said Byron York of the conservative website Washington Free Beacon. York interviewed Republican leaders in the key early battlegrounds of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa who gave Rubio's speech high marks.
But Democratic consultant Mo Elleithee said Rubio's speech won't appeal to voters outside the GOP.
"My problem was not that he was thirsty --it's that he was angry," said Elleithee. He said Rubio's Tuesday speech fell short of the "visionary" speech he gave when he introduced Romney at last year's Republican National Convention.
"He gave a speech that was angry. It was tired. It was not visionary --it was reactionary. And he looked like just another Republican politician. He was not a new voice," Elleithee said.
"After his speech I think he proved two things," Elleithee said. "He's still talented and Democrats should not underestimate him. But he's also not the savior and he can be beat."
Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale said Rubio's water grab didn't hurt him and his initial good-humored response to it could end up being a plus for him. While Rubio's critics have enjoyed a laugh, Schale said Democrats should take Rubio seriously as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
" 'Watergate' aside, he's the real deal," Schale said. "And folks who take him lightly on my side do so at their own peril."
Editor's note: George Bennett writes for the Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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