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Navarrette: Water-sip focus shows Democrats are afraid of Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, said on Tuesday

Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, said on Tuesday that more government won't help people get ahead.

Here's a thought that Republicans should find as refreshing as a cool drink of water: Marco Rubio drives liberals crazy.

The Florida senator had an awkward moment while giving the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday. Rubio had just taped his remarks in Spanish, before giving his speech live in English (the first time someone had given the response in two languages). Naturally, his throat got parched, and he reached for a bottle of water. It was human and funny.

Yet, while Rubio laughed off the incident in media interviews the next day, liberals won't let it go. That gives away how much they fear the guy.

The way those on the left react to Rubio -- a possible 2016 presidential hopeful -- goes beyond the resentment they feel toward Latinos who embrace conservatism. Those folks are always an annoyance to the left. After all, where would all these high-achieving minorities be without the generous support of liberals for life-altering programs such as affirmative action?

Yet in the case of Rubio, the usual hostility toward Hispanic Republicans seems to be only the starting point. Rubio isn't just defiant. He's dangerous.

Take it from former White House adviser Van Jones. During an appearance on CNN, Jones said that Democrats "dodged a bullet" when Rubio took that a sip of water. "People can chuckle today," Jones said of those on the left. "They're going to be worried about this guy tomorrow."

No doubt. It won't be so easy to portray this Cuban-American son of a bartender and hotel maid as a symbol of privilege. Many middle-class voters can identify with Rubio's journey, and feel good about the fact that the American dream is alive and well. And if Rubio does run for president, the problem that plagued Mitt Romney -- his inability to relate to everyday Americans -- probably won't be issue. Not only that, the 41-year-old is an attractive candidate and an excellent communicator.

"Rubio is dangerous for Democrats," Jones said. "Right when he reached for that water bottle, he was reaching an emotional part of the speech which he stepped on."

Jones centered on the last 90 seconds of Rubio's remarks, which he said were extremely powerful. As he put it, Rubio "is to the heart what Paul Ryan is to the head. . . . This man can connect emotionally."

Connecting was what Rubio's remarks were all about. In focus groups, voters of all colors and backgrounds said that they could relate to Rubio, and felt he understands their fear and frustration over a fragile economy, a weak job market, and a national debt of more than $16 trillion. This was a message Rubio hit hard during his remarks.

"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 -- hardworking middle-class Americans who don't need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class."

And what about Rubio's ability to connect with that one group that can make or break the GOP's efforts to reach out to Hispanics -- Mexican-Americans in the Southwest?

Let's see. Rubio's parents were Spanish-speaking immigrants who worked hard in menial jobs and emphasized education as the way for their children to live out their dreams. Rubio entered politics, challenged the power structure as an underdog and triumphed against long odds.

Now, in the Senate, he is scolding fellow Republicans for taking a tone on immigration that has been intolerant, insensitive and inconsistent with conservative principles. And despite resistance from the radical fringe of his party, he is standing his ground -- and communicating his message, not just in English but also in perfect Spanish.

Oh, dear. It's enough to drive Democrats to drink.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.