In a recent Resurgent Republic poll, 51% of Florida Latinos said they had a favorable view of Rubio — but slightly more, 55%, said they had a favorable view of Obama. And that's in Florida, where Cuban Americans, who tend to be more conservative than other Latinos, make up about a third of the state's Latino population. In other words, many of Rubio's home-state voters, who know him best, appear to view him as a Tea Party conservative who happens to be Latino, rather than the other way around.
Rubio is himself Cuban American, which makes him a minority among the nation's Latinos, most of whom are Mexican American. (Only about 4% of U.S. Latinos are of Cuban ancestry.)
The GOP argues that this isn't a fatal handicap. "Rubio's story — his mother worked in a hotel, his father tended bar — is an inspiration to a lot of people, not just Cuban Americans," argues Hector Barajas, a GOP strategist in Sacramento. But it's not a plus, either.
In the end, it may not be Rubio's ethnicity that boosts him with GOP voters but something else: He embraces staunch Tea Party principles, but he doesn't come off as a zealot. He's Michele Bachmann, but not as scary.
If Republicans nominate a candidate who needs to shore up support on the party's right — a candidate like, say, Mitt Romney — Rubio could be exactly what's needed. He could give Tea Party activists a reason to turn out at the polls even if the presidential nominee isn't their first choice. But as a way to guarantee a big defection of Latino votes to the GOP column, he's no sure thing.