WASHINGTON — It happens almost every time Sen. Marco Rubio sits down for a national TV interview. Will you be on the Republican presidential ticket in 2012?
He's flattered, Rubio says, but he will not be anyone's running mate. "I'm focused on this job here in the U.S. Senate," he said.
Smart politics — he arrived only six months ago — but can't a Republican salivate? And can't a man change his mind?
Party insiders, activists and pundits alike think the young, smart Hispanic lawmaker from Florida would put a presidential candidate over the top.
"My contacts in the Mitt Romney camp are boasting: 'Doesn't a Romney-Rubio ticket sound great?' " Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore wrote last week. "Operatives from the pack of other wannabes are thinking ahead to the same Rubio marriage with their candidate."
The Republican National Committee is hoping along the same lines. A strategy memo identifies Rubio as a key cog in the GOP nominee winning Florida, a swing state vital to the hopes of President Barack Obama.
Even if Rubio resists, he is poised to shape the race. Candidates will seek his endorsement for the same reason they want him on the ticket.
He's from Florida. He's a rising national figure with tea party and establishment Republican credentials. He's the son of working-class Cuban exiles and could counter Democratic inroads into the burgeoning Latino vote.
"He's a rock star," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "The presidential candidates are going to be knocking on his door. He's a popular guy not just in Florida but around the country."
Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a leading tea party figure and one of Rubio's earliest backers, said Rubio will be under pressure as the race narrows.
"He's got every reason to delay, just as I'm doing, because the closer it gets to the primary, the more valuable that endorsement will be and the more we'll know about the candidates," DeMint said.
DeMint said Rubio should eventually pick a candidate. "The more conservatives are together on the person we get behind, the more likely that person will get through this primary."
But Rubio said he will not get involved until "we have a nominee or presumptive nominee." Asked a second time, he said he was "pretty sure" he would stay neutral.
"I don't feel any pressure to get involved," Rubio said. "I'm pretty busy up here. We'll have a good nominee and I look forward to working for that person. There's no strategy behind it."
At 40, Rubio has time to wait. Obama was a young, charismatic superstar who left the Senate early to run for president, opening himself to criticism that he put ambition above the hard work of gaining experience and passing legislation.
If Obama can hold on to a second term, Rubio could emerge as a Republican candidate (on top of the ticket, not as a running mate) in 2016.
Waiting has advantages. Kellyanne Conway, a prominent Republican pollster, does not think that is part of the calculation.
"Sen. Rubio has already proven that he doesn't simply take establishment orders of sit there and wait your turn. He took on Charlie Crist," she said, adding she thinks Rubio wants to build a resume based on policy.
"There's much to gain from receiving Sen. Rubio's endorsement but there's little to gain from him from giving it," Conway said. "If anything, it's a distraction from the day job and a contravention of the decidedly low profile he's keeping."
But Republicans will continue to lust for Rubio in 2012 and candidates will eagerly seek his support. So far, none of the campaigns have made formal overtures but it's early.
Rubio endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Huckabee took himself out of the running this time. Rubio is a fan of Newt Gingrich, and vice versa, but the former House speaker's campaign is running on fumes.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, who also ran in 2008, showed up at some Rubio campaign events last year. But while several Romney veterans are now on Rubio's staff (including chief of staff Cesar Conda and communications director Alex Burgos), Romney's moderate views on health care and other issues in the past may not square with Rubio's image as an uncompromising conservative.
Jon Huntsman, who served as ambassador to China under Obama, also strikes some as too moderate. Tim Pawlenty has warmed to conservatives but his strength as a candidate is still being tested.
Then there is U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, founder of the tea party caucus in the House and the candidate now generating the most buzz and momentum. Her supporters may be most in line with the grass roots activists who pushed Rubio above Crist.
Apryl Marie Fogel, a tea party organizer from Melbourne and Republican consultant, said comparisons between Rubio and Bachmann are natural and thinks Rubio will feel pressure to give her a look. But she also thinks he means it when he says he'll stay neutral.
"People are realizing he's going to be his own man and we can't call for him to do anything he doesn't want to," Fogel said. "I'd much rather him be a strong conservative voice on policy than in the field with candidates."
Rubio says he will continue to push for an early Florida primary date, giving the state more influence in picking the nominee. And with the Republican National Convention being held in Tampa, Florida's top Republican will most likely deliver one of the key speeches.