The big get in Florida _ Rubio _ isn't giving

By Laura Wides-munoz

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 23 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the Newseum in Washington. As the GOP presidential race shifts to Florida, all eyes are on Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and one of Florida's most popular officials. He's pledged to stay neutral, but that hasn't stopped a growing fervor over whether the tea party favorite might make an endorsement _ and whether he'll end up on the Republican ticket.

Haraz N. Ghanbari, File, Associated Press

MIAMI — He's young, telegenic and charismatic. He's Hispanic, Catholic and the son of Cuban immigrants. He's a tea party favorite, a GOP star and, many say, the future of the Republican Party.

Sen. Marco Rubio's endorsement would be a big get for any of the presidential contenders ahead of the Jan. 31 Florida primary — if only he were the giving kind.

The freshman senator, who has ties to GOP presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, has pledged to stay neutral as Republicans pick a challenger to President Barack Obama. But Rubio's refusal to pick sides hasn't squelched intense speculation about whether Rubio might make a surprise endorsement — and whether he'll end up as the vice presidential nominee.

Rubio publicly insists that he's not interested in either, recently telling Fox News Channel: "I've had a lot of people running with whom I've had relationships and that have been helpful to me, so I'm really not inclined to endorse in the primary."

Aides to Romney and Gingrich say neither candidate has asked Rubio for his endorsement out of respect for the senator's decision to stay out of the race. Even so, their backers are privately hoping Rubio changes his mind, given how wide open the race is only a week before Florida's Republicans weigh in on what has been a volatile nomination fight.

Rubio, 40, is one of Florida's most popular leaders, particularly among Republicans. A Quinnipiac University poll released Jan. 10 found that nearly 80 percent of Republicans and nearly half of independents approved of the job he is doing. Only a quarter of Democrats liked his job performance.

A native of Miami, the former state legislator was the youngest person and first Hispanic to become speaker of the Florida House in 2007. He vaulted onto the national stage in 2010 when he latched onto the fledging tea party movement to challenge then-Gov. Charlie Crist, a centrist and the GOP establishment's choice, in the Republican primary for an open Senate seat. Rubio's stock rose quickly, forcing Crist to flee the GOP and run as an independent. In the end, Rubio was the GOP nominee and he went on to win in the general election.

Rubio has connections to both front-runners.

He and Gingrich have known each other for years. The freshman senator brought a photo of the former House speaker to his Washington office. And Gingrich wrote the forward to Rubio's book, "100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future." Rubio wrote it before taking office as Florida House speaker. Gingrich has called the book "a work of genius."

Rubio's personal friend and political ally, fellow Cuban-American U.S. Rep. David Rivera, is backing Gingrich. Rubio's former Senate campaign chief Jose Mallea is running Gingrich's Florida campaign. Rubio and Gingrich both will address the Hispanic Leadership Network's conference in Miami on Friday.

Romney, for his part, endorsed Rubio over Crist in the 2010 GOP Senate primary, calling him "an American hero" and adding: "He represents what is good and so great about this land of ours."

Nearly half a dozen Rubio staffers worked for the former Massachusetts governor's 2008 presidential campaign, including the senator's chief of staff.

Both Romney and Gingrich have called Rubio an obvious choice for a vice-presidential short-list.

"He checks a lot of boxes. He comes from Florida, and he provides balance," said former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Romney backer. "I can't conceive of anyone who in a list of five or six wouldn't have Rubio there."

Bill McCollum, co-chair of Gingrich's Florida campaign, said Rubio would be among Gingrich's top picks for vice president "if and when the time occurs."

It's not just that he's from Florida, a critical general-election swing state, that has Republicans speculating about his political future.

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