By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, seeking to help the Republican Party shed its image as a defender of the rich, planned to stress his working-class upbringing and the need to save social safety net programs during his response on Tuesday to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
For Rubio, 41, the speech represented a potential star-making moment at a time when Republicans are desperate to reach out to the nation's fast-growing Latino population, which voted overwhelmingly for Obama and Democrats in the November elections.
Excerpts of Rubio's remarks released before he spoke indicated that the first-term senator from Florida would stress his modest upbringing as a son of Cuban immigrants - and that he would strike working-class themes that are staples of speeches by Obama and other Democrats.
'I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in,' Rubio says in the excerpts of the speech that he was to deliver immediately after Obama finished his annual address to a joint session of Congress.
The emphasis on Rubio's modest roots - his Cuban-born father and mother came to the United States in the 1950s and worked as a bartender and hotel maid, respectively - signaled that he and Republicans now are trying to relate to voters in a way that eluded Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 presidential nominee.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who made a fortune at his private equity firm, was cast by Democrats as an out-of-touch elitist during the campaign. It was an image that lowered his ratings among voters and was fed by Romney's own comments that '47 percent' of Americans would never vote for him because they were dependent on government programs.
Romney's stance on immigration - he touted a 'self-deportation' plan under which the government essentially would make things so miserable for illegal immigrants that they would leave the United States voluntarily - further battered Republicans' image among Latinos. In the Nov. 6 election, Latinos cast more than 70 percent of their votes for Obama.
Since then, Republicans have scrambled to portray their party as more tolerant and more understanding of the concerns of Latinos and the middle class.
A big part of that strategy has been to promote Rubio, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement who, at least when it comes to immigration, appears ready to buck the movement's no-compromises approach and work with Democrats on legislation.
Rubio was in a bipartisan group of eight senators who have called for providing a path to U.S. citizenship for many of the 11 million foreigners who are living in this country illegally.
That position is not particularly popular with many Republicans. But throughout the party, there also is a recognition that if Republicans do not improve their image among Latinos - starting by supporting an overhaul of immigration laws - more election losses could be likely.
Rubio underscored Republicans' outreach effort by delivering a taped version of his speech in Spanish for Spanish-language television networks.
The 2016 elections are nearly four years away, but hopes that Rubio might help Republicans at least cut into Democrats' advantage among Latinos have been such that Time magazine splashed his picture on its Feb. 18 cover with a headline that said, 'Republican savior.'
In an attempt to blunt criticisms that Republicans want to balance budgets by gutting social safety net programs, Rubio planned to note that the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly and disabled 'is especially important to me.'
The senator, who won election to the U.S. Congress in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party successes that stressed smaller government, said in his rebuttal to Obama that Medicare 'provided my father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity.'
But he criticized Obama and Democrats for not seeking savings in such social programs. 'Anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now is in favor of bankrupting it,' Rubio said.
More broadly, Rubio called for a pared-down federal government, drawing some sharp contrasts with Obama's planned speech. In excerpts released by the White House, the president was to tout a new round of programs that he said would 'reignite' the middle class and create new jobs.
As part of his deficit-reduction strategy, Obama has called for a balance between government spending cuts and tax increases aimed at the wealthiest.
Rubio, like most Republicans, rejected the latter.
'Raising taxes won't create private sector jobs,' the senator said, accusing Obama of having an 'obsession' with tax increases.
While trying to recast his party's image in more moderate terms, Rubio has racked up a voting record that is squarely conservative.
On Tuesday, he voted against renewing the 'Violence Against Women Act' that passed the Senate 78-22 with only Republicans in opposition.
Rubio began the year as one of only eight senators opposing a 'fiscal cliff' deal that raised taxes on those households with net incomes above $450,000. And last year, he joined other Republicans in slowing legislation to keep student loan interest rates low.
Last week Rubio made waves when he questioned whether humans were contributing to climate change, despite overwhelming evidence presented by most mainstream scientists.
Even with his conservative voting record, Rubio has managed to position himself as somewhat of a moderate in his home state of Florida. That could help him appeal to a broad range of voters if he decides to wage a national campaign for president in 2016.
Rubio 'has done a pretty effective job of convincing many voters that he's not an ideologue,' said Christopher Mann, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami.
Rubio has 'carved out (himself) as a voice of reason and moderation in the Republican Party,' unlike other Tea Party-aligned politicians, said Mann, contrasting Rubio with former Florida congressman Allen West, who last year claimed there were 80 communists in the House of Representatives.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech) Keywords: OBAMA SPEECH/RUBIO
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