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‘Republican Obama’ only threat to Trump

Marco Rubio is the last candidate standing between Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s nomination for president.
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Last weekend’s South Carolina primary reinforced Trump’s political ascendancy and confirmed that Bush, Kasich, Carson and Cruz are dead in the water. None of them can beat Trump.

But Republican elites are talking up Rubio. They hope that, with the demise of Bush and the irrelevance of Kasich, the Florida Senator can now consolidate the anti-Trump vote and snatch an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat.

Some pundits have called Rubio the “Republican Obama”. He is young, handsome, charismatic. He delivers a fine speech. And his personal story is at the centre of his political identity.

Rubio is a Cuban-American, whose immigrant parents were poor. After studying law, Rubio rose rapidly to the US Senate. He burst onto the national political scene in 2010 as a darling of the Tea Party. He has since also won favour with the Republican establishment and independents.

What makes Rubio a genuine contender is his potential to unite disparate constituencies with a new model of conservative politics. In a country where non-whites are expected to outnumber whites by 2042, Rubio is focused on generational and demographic transformation. Rubio claims he is the only Republican with sufficiently wide appeal to win a general election against Hillary Clinton.

Detractors cite his inexperience as a major weakness. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie attacked his ‘thin’ resume in a recent debate, Rubio’s inept response only fuelled concerns about his “job readiness”and triggered a temporary dip in the polls.

With Super Tuesday fast approaching – March 1,when 12 states and one territory will hold their primaries – it is timely to ask: what kind of Republican is Rubio? And what does he stand for?

Hehas been called a “policy wonk”. Hard-right Republicans rebuke him as a “moderate”. Hard-left Democrats denounce him as a “reactionary”. But he is perhaps best described as a “maverick”– a conservative, but not one that fits a single mould.

Rubio’s stance on immigration is not standard Republican fare. Despite his Latino identity, he proposes to build a 700-mile fence to stop Mexicans illegally crossing into the US. Yet, at the same time, Rubio believes that the government should move to recognise undocumented immigrants who are already in America (subject to certain conditions).

An opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and diplomatic outreach to Cuba, he is the most articulate Republican critic of Obama’s foreign policy and the most credible-sounding proponent of the need for a more “muscular” US approach to the outside world.

On the economy, Rubio recites the standard Republican mantra that “government is the problem not the solution”, and that tax cuts will fuel economic growth. Yet Rubio also shows evidence of independent thinking about “structural problems” that displace workers, threaten wages, and restrict opportunities for millions of Americans.

The hard truth is that the Republican Party will now nominate either Donald Trump or Marco Rubio to be their candidate in this year’s November election. To halt the Trump juggernaut, Rubio will need to defy recent history and be the unifier he has long promised to be.

Michael Ondaatje is Australian Catholic University national head of arts.Mark Chou is Australian Catholic University associate professor of politics.

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