U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio quit talking about it Monday. He didn't have to. Campaigning for the first time with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Rubio was treated to a media bonanza portrayed as an audition for vice presidential running mate.
"I'm not talking about that process any more," Rubio told reporters in Aston, near Philadelphia, with a smile that seemed a playful reference to a forum last week, when he mistakenly said "if I do a good job as vice president" then corrected himself to say, "as a senator."
Rubio, who is a month shy of his 41st birthday and has been in office only 15 months, insists he wants to represent Florida in the Senate. But the appearance with Romney only stoked the "veepstakes" speculation, now at a full roar with Romney having effectively secured the nomination and starting to evaluate potential running mates.
Romney also dodged questions about the process, declining to say whether Rubio's experience at a national level is enough. Republicans have long attacked President Barack Obama, who was a first-term senator from Illinois when he was elected president, as unprepared.
"I don't think I have any comments on qualifications for individuals to serve in various positions in government at this stage," Romney told reporters. "That's something that we're going to be considering down the road as we consider various potential vice presidential nominees."
Romney was in Pennsylvania in advance of today's primary. Rick Santorum, his closest rival and a former U.S. senator from the state, dropped out of the race two weeks ago, ending a more protracted slog to the nomination and giving Romney time to appeal to a broader audience.
Pennsylvania will be key in the general election, and Rubio lent some of his star power to Romney, assailing Obama as someone who "doesn't know what he's doing."
"There's only one choice running for president that will help us reclaim and recapture the things that make this nation of ours different from all the other countries on the earth and he happens to be here today," Rubio said on stage at a trucking company.
Rubio and Romney seemed to have a comfortable rapport, both appearing without jackets or ties, laughing and smiling at each other. Rubio has a more natural public presence than Romney and a compelling biography, and both assets came through.
Rubio turned a question about entitlement reform into a paean to America, telling how his parents came to the United States from Cuba without knowing much English or having much education.
"Even though my parents weren't rich — at all — I was privileged because I lived in a strong and stable family and I had all kinds of opportunities they didn't," Rubio said. "It isn't because I worked harder than they did. It isn't because I'm smarter than they were. It's because I had something they didn't: the privilege and the honor of being born in the single greatest society in all of human history."
The crowd burst into applause.
While Romney gave a somewhat dry response to a question about voter ID laws enacted across the country by Republican legislatures, Rubio's drew laughs and more clapping.
"About a week ago, I went and bought an exercise bike because my wife said I was looking too senatorial, if you know what I mean," Rubio said to laughter. "You know what this cashier asked me for, when I went to pay? My ID. This morning I got on an airplane, you know what they asked me for? ("ID," the audience replied.) So what's the big deal? What is the big deal?"
Denials aside, Rubio has positioned himself to be in the enviable spot he now shares with a handful of others also getting a tryout of sorts with Romney: Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
The GOP is eager to see Rubio claim the spotlight as it tries to appeal to a growing Hispanic vote, and Rubio could best help Romney in Florida, which Obama won by less than 3 percentage points in 2008. Nationally, Obama has a huge lead over Romney with Hispanics.
In a news conference before the town hall meeting in Aston, Romney declined to endorse a proposal Rubio is crafting that would provide legal status for children of illegal immigrants but not a new path to citizenship as the long stalled "Dream Act" legislation would.
"It has many features to commend it. But it's something that we're studying," said Romney, who adopted hard-line positions on immigration early in the nominating process. Rubio followed a similar approach in the 2010 Senate race, but his proposal represents an effort to find middle ground.
Romney has softened his own rhetoric on immigration and Monday made another turn to the center, saying he supported an extension of low-interest rates on student loans that House Republicans oppose. Romney pre-empted Obama, who will highlight the issue in a visit to three college campuses in three swing states, starting today at the University of North Carolina.