WASHINGTON — Republicans chose Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a fresh new face of the party, to respond to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday.
But if the messenger was new, the message Rubio offered was back-to-basics, a recommitment of the party to traditional conservative notions of economic growth.
He argued low taxes, limited regulations and smaller government would free the economy from the shackles of big government he contended Obama offered in his own address.
"Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich," he said. "I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors. Hard working middle class Americans who don't need us to come up with a plan to grow the government."
He called for a balanced budget amendment to force Washington to reduce spending and accused Obama of an "obsession" with raising taxes rather than tackling growing deficits through spending cuts or economic growth.
Rubio delivered versions of his speech in English and Spanish.
And he offered a particularly personal response, talking of his own immigrant upbringing. In calling for changes to curb the growth of Medicare, he invoked the care his father received through the program while dying of cancer and noted his mother remains enrolled.
"Mr. President, I still live in the same working class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren't millionaires. They're retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare," he said.
Then he added: "The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs."
Rubio delivered the remarks in a strong and confident tone. But about halfway through the speech, he appeared to suffer a bout of dry mouth and, in a made-for-Twitter moment, twice wiped his lips and then awkwardly paused and reached far off camera for a bottle of water.
Rubio has shifted into the party's forefront in recent weeks because of his central role in a bipartisan group of eight senators who are working to write an proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
He offered only a terse response to Obama's emotional call for new gun control measures. "We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country," he said. "But," he added, "unconstitutionally undermining the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it."