WASHINGTON - The anticipated verbal duel Tuesday evening between President Obama and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- the former in his State of the Union Address and the latter in the official Republican response -- was an obvious mismatch. It seemed a case of man vs. boy, and of a perhaps overly ambitious agenda for the future vs. the same old GOP naysaying.
The president, invoking all the pomp and power of his office, had one of politics' best platforms from which to preach optimistically of progress at home and withdrawal from combat abroad. He used it to build on his second inaugural speech on how he would re-energize a flagging American middle class.
Rubio, confined to an ordinary Capitol Hill office devoid of any similar trappings, offered himself as a personal tribute to middle-class opportunity based on individual grit and smaller government. Although the face was new, the message was the tired Republican boilerplate voters rejected in November.
Rubio's appearance came amid much discussion of the Republican Party's need to shed its image as the Party of No and its association with the rich that did Mitt Romney in. In an obvious sense, the Hispanic-American senator from a middle-class family speaking in Spanish as well as in English filled the bill.
His selection to rebut Obama was a recognition that his party needs to respond more to the needs of Latino voters, who gave the president a whopping 73 percent of their votes last November. But Rubio's message merely sought to outbid Obama as a champion of the middle class. It was a futile effort in light of the president's proposals that included a boost in the federal minimum wage and a new preschool initiative for kids of poor parents.
Obama, with his re-election behind him, spelled out the aggressive proposals of his second inaugural address in more inclusive and combative tones, building on the new leadership image he has been projecting for his second term. Rubio, in contrast, failed to offer himself as much more than an earnest young messenger recycling the old conservative GOP litany of opposition to a bigger, more expensive and intrusive federal government.
Alluding to the way Romney was effectively tarred as a well-heeled defender of the haves against the nation's have-nots, Rubio said he did not oppose Obama's agenda "because I want to protect the rich." Rather, he said, he wanted to "protect my neighbors, hard-working Americans who don't need us to come up with a plan to grow the government."
At the same time, Rubio acknowledged that his neighbors, including his own mother, were "retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare," two federal programs of Democratic paternity that have been strong sources of voter support for Obama.
Rubio's presentation had no memorable moment to match the president's closing exhortation to the members of Congress present in the House chamber. Obama's challenge that the victims and survivors of the Newtown and other recent gun violence tragedies "deserve a vote" on his anti-gun proposals put new heat on his captive audience.
Unfortunately for Rubio, his own most memorable moment had nothing to do with the substance of anything he said. Rather, late in his speech, when he reached out of the television camera's view for a water bottle and quickly gulped from it, tweeting viewers went berserk.
Such is the nature of commentary in the trivialized world of social media. Rubio's distracting lurch had, of course, nothing to do with the substance of what he was saying. But it left him open to the merciless ridicule of the late-night comedians posing as social and political commentators.
At only 41, boyishly attractive and articulate, Marco Rubio from his Senate perch will remain a poster boy for the conservative Republicans looking to rebound from their party's November defeat. The fact that the GOP appears to have no surefire veteran waiting to inherit the next presidential nomination will keep Rubio in the guessing game.
But his initial foray into presidential politics hardly established him as the Republican version of the Barack Obama who catapulted to national attention with his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.