It's one of the most treasured spotlights -- and one of the most thankless tasks -- in American politics. For one night this year, a Republican will become the face of the party and offer a response to the president of the United States after he delivers the State of the Union address.
The spotlight is intense; despite the fact that the response gets a far smaller audience than the president's address, it's still watched by everyone in Washington, and by millions more around the country. It can highlight a rising star in the GOP, like last year's address in which Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell shone. Or it can be easily mocked for one outstanding feature; think of the parodies of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's performance, or of then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's seemingly independent eyebrow.
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The honor comes with a requirement not unlike the Hippocratic oath: Above all, just don't screw up.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who have the final say in the matter, are not going to pick themselves. And after winning big in 2010, they have no shortage of rising stars and well-established talent from which to choose. Here are our favorites for the job, and the odds each might be tapped to give the address:
- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., odds 3-1: Rubio is young, well-spoken and attractive to the conservative base. Most importantly, he's Hispanic, and in a year in which the GOP is bragging about its newfound diversity, that fact is no small consideration. McConnell has outsized influence in the selection process, and no Republican senator has given the response since Susan Collins and Bill Frist in 2000. But Rubio is playing his initial months in Washington under the radar, and responding to the State of the Union is certainly not an under-the-radar job. If asked, he might just decline the opportunity.
- Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., odds 6-1: Ayotte has already given a response to President Obama's weekly radio address, and she got good reviews when she did. She's a pragmatic conservative, attractive to both the tea party base and the establishment, as evidenced by her win in a contentious New Hampshire primary. And, like Rubio, she's evidence that the GOP is no longer just the party of old white males.
- New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, odds 5-1: Last year, the Republican Governors Association worked behind the scenes to make sure she won her primary. Her victory in November gave the GOP a Hispanic woman who based her entire campaign on cutting spending. That checks three very important visual and ideological boxes. But how well is she known, or regarded, in Boehner's and McConnell's offices?
- South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, odds 5-1: Like Martinez, Haley is articulate and represents diversity within the party. Like Martinez, she spent her whole campaign talking about cutting government spending. Like Martinez, Haley got quiet, behind-the-scenes help from the national party in her contentious primary. Haley is even better known than Martinez, having graced the cover of Newsweek. The only drawback we can think of is that tapping a South Carolinian doesn't exactly scream regional diversity. But that's a pretty tiny drawback. Still, we're told Haley has not been asked to give the address, and -- given that the speech would come on Tuesday -- it's highly likely that the person who will give the address has been asked already.
- Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, odds 8-1: Martinez and Haley have had their turns in the spotlight. Oddly, Sandoval hasn't, though he shares many of the same traits and probably deserves the same star treatment. The Mountain West provides Republicans with pickup and growth opportunities, so tapping a Silver Stater isn't a bad idea. And the GOP has never had any Hispanic person deliver the response, making Sandoval an automatic short-lister if that becomes a consideration.
- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, odds 10-1: Just after the 2009 gubernatorial elections, Bob McDonnell was seen as the next GOP superstar, while Christie was a bit overlooked. Then Christie actually started governing, and he became the next big thing. Christie has taken on government waste, unpopular unions, and a deeply unpopular legislature, and he's the model other new governors hope to emulate. But the biggest factor working against him is that he's a white male. In an earlier time, Christie might have been the obvious choice. Now, he's a longer shot.
- Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., odds 10-1: Few people talk about the budget and the need for spending cuts more articulately than Ryan does. He gets the right message across, and he's a big deal among tea party activists. What's more, Republicans will use a House vote on Tuesday to spotlight his work on the Budget Committee, making this an ideal time to raise Ryan's profile. But he's got the Chris Christie problem in that he doesn't send the ideal message about diversity within the GOP.
- Ohio Gov. John Kasich, odds 15-1: Like Christie and Ryan, Kasich has the white-male thing working against him. Unlike Christie and Ryan, Kasich has been around the block, and his work as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers would give the Democratic National Committee an easy point of rhetorical attack. Still, Kasich is experienced and presents well, meaning he should be in the conversation.
- Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., odds 18-1: She's young, she's attractive and she's got a great story. Plus, one of the GOP's favorite lines invokes a national debt so high it will impact future generations. As a mother, McMorris Rodgers could illustrate that point. Still, picking a junior member of leadership, or some combination of several of them, isn't terribly original, if originality is what Boehner and McConnell are going for.
- Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., odds 20-1: Speaking of box-checking, if the Republican message is a dual-pronged focus on cutting spending and signaling a new direction for the diversity-challenged GOP, the party could do worse than to tap a young deficit hawk who, by the way, happens to be an African American. But it's rare for a single non-leadership House member to offer the address; in the history of State of the Union responses, that's happened only once -- when J.C. Watts got the job in 1997. Even then, Watts was starting his second term, rather than being a wet-behind-the-ears freshman. But that gives us an idea...
- The Freshman Class, odds 30-1: Republicans have frequently used more than one person to deliver the address. Their message this year centers on changing the way business is done in D.C. So why not pull in a montage of Republican freshmen to deliver a message: We're here to do what you wanted and cut spending. Using several members, a diverse cross-section of the freshman class, would be a unique way of approaching the address. Then again, it would be a logistical nightmare, and the image of everyone introducing themselves over and over would be an easy parody on "Saturday Night Live."
- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R.Va., odds 40-1: Cantor has embraced his role as the number two Republican in the House, and he's an ever-present face on television. But Boehner is involved in the selection process, and while the Boehner-Cantor feud has largely been overblown, be sure that Boehner is watching his second-in-command closely. That's what makes us think Boehner probably wouldn't want Cantor hogging such a big limelight.
- The Presidential Field, odds 500-1: Picking anyone who might remotely consider running for president is almost certainly off the table. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, and Mike Huckabee would all do an admirable job, but picking any of them would anger the rest of the field, and neither Boehner nor McConnell has any interest in playing favorites.
- Sarah Palin, odds 1000-1: Not going to happen, especially after her disastrous response to the tragedy in Arizona. Republicans don't want Palin to be the face of a party that's still focused more on its work on Capitol Hill than on the presidential campaign trail.
- Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, odds 10,000-1: Okay, now we're just having fun. Don't expect Bentley, who made a very impolitic comment this week and then walked it back by saying people in Alabama didn't take offense like the rest of the country did, to get any kind of starring role in the national GOP. Ever.
- The Field, odds 10-1: There's a great chance we're overlooking the next big star. Boehner and McConnell could go completely outside the box and pick a philanthropist, or a businessman, or a group of tea party activists. They could stay completely conventional and share duties themselves. (Senate and House leaders have shared response duties several times in the past.) The options are limitless -- making it a very real possibility that the eventual answer isn't even on this list.
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