Marco Rubio’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech gave the freshman Republican senator perhaps the widest national exposure of his political career so far. But given that Rubio is also considered a top prospect for the 2016 GOP presidential race, and that he is giving every appearance of a man seriously considering a run for the White House, perhaps his most important viewers Tuesday night were Republicans in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And the reaction from some key GOP officials and activists in those states was: They loved it.
“I thought Rubio did a great job,” said Chad Connelly, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, after watching the speech from his home in Columbia. “He’s getting hammered by the liberals on Twitter for taking a drink of water, but he’s a human being.”
Connelly ticked off a number of Rubio lines that made a good impression. He particularly liked the moment when Rubio said to Obama, “Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
“That one sticks,” Connelly said. He also pointed to Rubio’s observation that Obama has an “obsession” with raising taxes. “That’s what a lot of us have thought a long time,” said Connelly. And then there was the 41 year-old Rubio’s statement that he just finished paying off his student loans “a few months ago.” “I bet people really connected with that,” Connelly said.
“He’s relatable,” Connelly said of Rubio, who traveled to South Carolina to speak at the state party’s main fundraiser last year. “I think you’re going to find our people are very impressed. People have to see him as a credible candidate.”
“He made me proud to be a Republican,” said Juliana Bergeron, a former Cheshire County, New Hampshire party chair and current Republican National Committeewoman from New Hampshire. “I thought he did great, except maybe for the little drink of water in the middle.”
Bergeron noted earlier GOP State of the Union responses from Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal and said of Rubio, “I thought he did the best rebuttal I’ve seen.”
“I was really with him on this speech,” Bergeron continued. “Tonight was the first night that I really thought that he is somebody I could support for president. There’s a lot of time, and I’m not committing to that, but this time I thought this person could be a contender for president.”
“He certainly helped himself tonight,” said Loras Schulte, chairman of the Benton County, Iowa Republican Party. “I’ve been impressed with him a long time. He’s one of the rising stars of the party, and I think the values that I hold as a Republican burn in him as they burn in me.”
A strong social conservative, Schulte noted Rubio’s statement, early in the speech, that, “We believe that every life, at every stage, is precious.” “I am passionately pro-life, so his opening talk about life sat well with me,” said Schulte, speaking from his home in Norway, Iowa. “I think the one thing that Rubio has really got going for him is one of the things President Reagan had — his ability to reach out and connect with people. I think Rubio has a lot of that.”
The one area in which Schulte had reservations about Rubio is the senator’s role in comprehensive immigration reform. That same concern was shared by another influential Iowa Republican activist, Chuck Laudner, who listened to Rubio’s speech on the radio as he traveled home to Rockford after a party meeting in Fort Dodge. (Laudner, perhaps Rick Santorum’s most devoted supporter in 2012, was still driving the famous “Chuck truck” that took Santorum around the state.)
“He did a fine job,” Laudner said, noting that Rubio sounded a bit nervous on radio. “Life at every stage is precious — I noticed that right off the bat.” But later in the speech, Laudner, who says he would support Santorum if the former Pennsylvania senator ran again, added, “Rubio and Obama sounded alike on immigration, and that just proves my point that that’s going to be a tough sell in primary circles.” For his part, Schulte said of Rubio and immigration: “My fear is that when you play with people like Sen. Schumer, you want to be very careful. I would be incredibly leery of working with him.”
Rubio won a lot of praise for handling what everyone knows is a very tough assignment. Conservative radio host Mark Levin called Rubio’s speech “the best response to a State of the Union I’ve ever seen.” Even the lefty blogger Matthew Yglesias called it “perhaps the least-bad State of the Union response I can remember.” But Rubio’s presidential future, should he choose to pursue one, will depend on people like Chad Connelly, Juliana Bergeron, Loras Schulte, and Chuck Laudner. And from them, the news after Tuesday night was very good.