From NBC's Mark Murray
The very early jockeying for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination will enter a new stage tomorrow, when the three-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference -- featuring speeches by Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Haley Barbour, and others -- gets underway in New Orleans.
But there's growing 2012 buzz around one Republican who won't be attending the conference -- and who hasn't even won his 2010 primary or general election yet. That Republican is Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio.
The buzz started yesterday with conservative writer Matt Lewis arguing that Rubio should run in 2012. "[T]he same arguments for why Obama was right to take the plunge in 2008 could be made for why Rubio should run in 2012," he wrote.
And now Politico's Ben Smith details a conversation he had with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. "The longer nobody catches fire, the more space there is for Marco," Land told Smith. "It wouldn't be unheard of for a freshman senator from Florida to be the nominee — particularly one who was speaker of the [Florida Assembly]."
More Land: "He's got more experience than Obama had. There are a lot of Hispanics in this country who would find someone with Marco's ethnic background very appealing. Although I like Sarah [Palin], I think Sarah's got a lot more impediments to a nomination than Marco Rubio does."
But those drawing comparisons between Rubio and Obama are forgetting this very important fact about Obama's quick (and often charmed) political rise: It came with challenges and adversity that Rubio has yet to face.
First, few seem to remember that Obama had to defeat some formidable challengers --wealthy Blair Hull, Dan Hynes -- to win the 2004 Democratic Senate nomination. Of course, Charlie Crist, the current Florida governor and Rubio's current primary opponent, is hardly a pushover. But Crist's current struggles seem to have more to do with his standing among Republican primary voters than the prowess of Rubio's campaign.
Then, in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama had to defeat the biggest force in the Democratic Party: the Clintons. The equivalent for Rubio -- if he runs -- would be defeating Jeb Bush in the GOP primaries.
As Obama himself explained at a fundraiser last week in Boston, the long Democratic presidential primary -- with all of its ups and downs -- made him a better candidate in the general election. "The American people expect, rightly, that their president will have been tested," he said. "And the reason is is because they're tested all the time."
By comparison, Rubio hasn't yet been tested. Although he trailed Crist early on, Rubio now has a comfortable lead in the polls -- with more than four months until the primary. In fact, Rubio's poll position more resembles Hillary Clinton's, circa Sept. 2007, than Obama's.
Finally for Obama, there was the general election against John McCain, the most popular figure in the GOP after George W. Bush's political downfall, and everything that took place during it. Sarah Palin. The financial collapse. The debates.
All of this isn't to say that Rubio can't be the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee -- or win a presidential contest. But -- at this point -- Rubio hasn't been tested the way Candidate Obama was.
As Obama also said at that Boston fundraiser: "And so the least [the public] can expect is that somebody who has the audacity and the megalomania to run for president is going to -- is going to be put through the paces. And folks want to see, well, we're not going to just hand this to you, we want to see that you can bounce back. We want to see that you have the resilience and the determination to help guide this country through what folks at that time knew was going to be a very difficult period for our country."