Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republicans' big Latino hope for 2016, is a smart politician who might still make it to his party's presidential ticket, but he blew it big time during his nationally broadcast State of the Union rebuttal speech on Tuesday.
I'm not talking about the fact that he looked uncharacteristically nervous, rubbing his forehead repeatedly as if he was trying to wipe off sweat or scare away a mosquito. And I'm not talking about the moment where he almost disappeared from the television screen to get a bottle of water -- a scene that cartoonists will feast on for quite some time.
(Soon after the speech, Washington's influential Politico website ran a story on Rubio's awkward water-bottle grab under the headline 'Rubio's drinking problem,' while the CBS News website carried the story under the headline, 'Marco Rubio's 'water bottle-gate' moment.')
I'm talking about the content of his speech. Rubio, who had just appeared on Time magazine's cover as 'The Republican Savior,' missed a huge opportunity to establish himself as a Republican who can reach out to independent voters who, while not happy with President Barack Obama, see the Republicans as a party taken hostage by the extreme right.
Rubio had a great opportunity to shift somewhat to the center on issues such as immigration, women and gun violence, while maintaining his criticism of Obama's public-spending policies.
But Rubio missed his chance.
On immigration, the 41-year-old Cuban-American senator -- one of the Republicans' few hopes to recover Latino votes following the party's disastrous showing among Latinos in the 2012 elections -- didn't dare to pronounce the "C" word, as in citizenship, when he talked about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Minutes earlier, in his State of the Union address, Obama had proposed passing comprehensive immigration reform with greater border controls and "a responsible pathway to earned citizenship." That path should include background checks, paying meaningful penalties, learning English, and going to the back of the line of those trying to get into the country legally, Obama said.
But in his Republican rebuttal address, Rubio seemed to offer an eventual permanent-residency status without a path to citizenship.
"We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally," Rubio said. "But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."
The problem with not offering an earned pathway to citizenship is that it would, among other things, kick the problem down the road, creating a huge underclass of people who 10 years from now would be taking to the streets to demand their full rights.
France and other countries that gave undocumented immigrants permanent residency without citizenship have created a huge underclass of foreigners who have not blended into society, increasing social tensions and leading to periodic, often bloody, street riots in immigrant neighborhoods.
On gun violence, Rubio didn't propose any measures to reduce the recent wave of mass killings, even after the latest massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.
In his speech, Obama called for a Congressional vote on background checks to make it harder for criminals to buy weapons, as well as measures to keep military weapons off the streets.
Rubio's response was: "We must effectively deal with the rise in violence in this country, but unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it."
On women's issues and gay and lesbian rights, Obama called on House Republicans to pass an act to combat violence against women, an equal-pay-for-women law, and other measures to ensure equal treatment for all military personnel, including gay soldiers. Rubio did not directly address any of these issues.
My opinion: Rubio may recover from his "water-bottle gate," because I found in my own experience interviewing him that he's an intelligent, good-natured politician who will surely put this awkward moment behind him with a mix of self-depreciating humor and smart policy proposals.
But I'm not so sure he will be the "savior" who can reconnect the Republican Party with Latinos, women, and other sectors of society unless he distances himself from his party's right-wing extremists on immigration, gun violence, women, and other social issues, while continuing to stick to the Republicans' small-government philosophy. Rubio's problem wasn't the water. It was the message!
Andrés Oppenheimer is a Latin América correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Send e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.