MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The Republican Party has been listing in the political sea for a few months after the party’s disappointing showing in the 2012 election. As the party tries to tweak its message, while sticking to its previous ideas, Senator Marco Rubio is stepping into the vacuum left by Mitt Romney.

The bilingual Cuban-American lawmaker has become Republicans’ point person on immigration and he pitches economic solutions for middle-class workers. He is an evangelist for a modern, inclusive party that welcomes more Hispanics and minorities, but says Republicans must stay true to their principles.

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“In a way, he’s trying to save us from ourselves,” says Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union who gave Rubio his first job in politics, as a South Florida field staffer during Kansas Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “He gives us comfort against the naysayers who say we need to change our basic beliefs to attract a wider audience.”

Republicans selected Rubio to give the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesady. It’s a prime spot for Rubio as he continues to position himself for a run for the White House in 2016.

Part of Rubio’s problem though will be how to distance himself from the tea party that vaulted him into office in 2010, without looking like he’s trying to distance himself from the tea party. Rubio has to walk a tightrope between the more conservative tea party and the older, more moderate Republicans.

Rubio’s rise has drawn comparisons to President Obama. Both quickly ascended the national ladder of politics and both are great orators and let political power come to them rather than actively seek it out.

ince November’s pummeling, Rubio has taken a series of public and private steps to raise his already high profile and create the political, organizational and message framework he’d need should he decide to seek the White House.

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On election night, Rubio promoted “upward mobility policies” and counseled Republicans to renew their pitch to people from minority and immigrant communities. He made a quick trip to Iowa in mid-November for GOP Gov. Terry Branstad’s birthday party, which placed him before influential party activists in the important electoral state. Branstad lauded Rubio as the “kind of inspirational leader that’s going to help point us in the right direction.”

In December, Rubio said Republicans needed to attract voters from all economic backgrounds, invoking his late father, who worked as a hotel bartender. People like that are not “looking for a handout” but conditions to help them reach the middle class, Rubio said at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner.

Rubio has had detractors, too.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter said Rubio’s plan would allow illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S., essentially jumping ahead of those who have waited in their own countries to immigrate to the U.S. legally. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, called Rubio “naive.”

Indeed, the focus on immigration could be a boon or a bust for Rubio. If he rallies Republicans behind a plan that offers some resolution, he could be connected to a big legislative victory. But if the plan draws the wrath of Republican activists, it could hinder his ability to seek the big prize in 2016.

“I really believe that if I do the best job I can in the Senate,” Rubio told BuzzFeed, “then in a couple of years I’ll be in a position to make a decision about whether I want to run for re-election, leave politics and give someone else a shot or run for some other position.”

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