Could Marco Rubio Help Mitt Romney Carry the Latino Vote?

Even though the 2012 Republican presidential nominee has not be chosen, Washington, D.C., where I’ve lived for more than five years, is buzzing with this year’s “Veepstakes” parlor game. This is where “insiders,” political big wigs and regular friends make predictions in political columns, out at dinner, or on Facebook about who will be named frontrunner Mitt Romney’s Vice President.  In Las Vegas, actual bets are being placed!

A lot can happen between now--New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary--and the Republican convention at the end of August in Tampa, Florida.

Did I just say Florida?  Here’s a clue that has Veepstakes in overdrive.

Marco Rubio, Florida’s junior Senator is reportedly on the “short list” of the Romney campaign and the GOP. This rising Republican star has the conservative creds to shore up Mitt’s shortcomings: as governor of Massachusetts, he passed the “universal” health care law that would become the template for President Obama’s federal version; he also has expressed support for women’s reproductive and gay rights, all no-go zones for the most hardcore conservative voters.

Rubio, a former Florida state legislator for nearly a decade, is a darling of the conservative, grassroots, pro-small government Tea Party which helped him clobber his Republican opponent, incumbent governor Charlie Christ and win his U.S. Senate seat in 2010. He appeals to this powerful voting block because of his fiscally conservative positions promoting a simpler tax code and business regulations, and cutting the national debt so it doesn’t exceed the economy’s output.

Add his Cuban heritage, which could help the Republican party’s standing with Latinos.  This growing and young segment of the population has been turned off by the toxic tone of the Republican presidential debates around the hot button issue of illegal immigration which has left many feeling that the GOP is not just anti-undocumented immigrant, but anti-Hispanic. This is crucial given that Latinos make up 22.5% of the population of an important swing state--one that can go either Republican or Democratic. A Suffolk University poll from November shows Rubio could help the Republican ticket clinch the Sunshine State’s coveted 29 electoral college votes--a big get towards securing the minimum 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

But all’s not sunny: critics say he embellished his parents’ exile from Cuba, claiming they were driven out by Fidel Castro when in fact they left before the strongman assumed power.

There’s also this: will Latinos vote en masse Republican, just because one of “us” is on the ticket?  Although Hispanics care as much or more about jobs, the economy, and education, immigration reform is an important issue.  Although he has warned the GOP to tone it down on immigration, Rubio opposes “amnesty” in the form of comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act where illegal immigrant college students and military service members are placed on a path toward citizenship.

Then there’s Rubio’s inexperience.  Is America’s most prominent Latino Republican ready for “primetime,” able to keep up during the Fall’s Vice-Presidential debate against seasoned Joe Biden?  Maybe he would be crushed by the current VP as happened to Sarah Palin in 2008.

To be clear, Marco Rubio has repeatedly said thanks, but no thanks to being picked as Vice President. That’s not going to keep us---me--from guessing, better yet, from placing this bet.