Only 11 days after the re-election of Barack Obama, Marco Rubio flew to Iowa to informally begin his quest for the presidency in 2016.
He didn't come out and admit it, but there's no other reason for a Florida senator to visit the Hawkeye State in November, or any other time. Iowa holds the first big primary and is therefore treated with ludicrous attentiveness by future candidates.
At this point, only shut-ins and the morbidly curious are paying any attention to presidential politics. Everybody else is exhausted.
Yet last week, Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, who shared the GOP ticket with Mitt Romney, gave back-to-back speeches at a Washington hotel. The event was widely covered and analyzed.
Ryan, who's trying to extricate himself from the wreckage of the Romney campaign, is also running for the White House in 2016. In the absence of a Gaga-style makeover and mass voter amnesia, he can't win. This year he couldn't even deliver his home state of Wisconsin.
Rubio, on the other hand, will be worth watching once voters recover from the hangover of 2012. His appeal is potentially broader than that of anybody on the GOP horizon, which isn't saying much, but he's still their best hope.
If the guys running the party were smart, here's what they'd do: They would put Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, in charge of writing an immigration-reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented aliens already living and working in the United States.
No single act would do more to convince Hispanic voters that the GOP wasn't innately hostile toward them. That's crucial because the White House cannot be won by a candidate who scares off Hispanics the way Romney and John McCain did.
If Rubio could produce an immigration package that passed the Senate and survived the neoconservative outcry in the House, Obama would sign it in a heartbeat. With that under his belt, Rubio would be the clear frontrunner.
Although elected as a hard-right conservative, he's been sidling back toward the middle. It's the only possible way to beat Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The other night in Washington, Rubio made an unsubtle dig at the post-election whining of Romney and right-wing talk-show gasbags.
"Some say that our problem in America is that the American people have changed," Rubio said, "that too many people want things from our government. But I am still convinced that the overwhelming majority of our people just want what my parents had -- a chance."
Ryan also tried to strike a more benevolent note, though less convincingly. The video vaults are full of his snarky sound bites from the last campaign.
Based on the grim exit polls, you'd think Republican leaders would comprehend the futility of sucking up to the beet-faced Limbaugh fringe and pushing an agenda that most Americans viewed as extreme, exclusive and intrusive.
That tone had been set in the primaries by the lamest, flakiest set of candidates in modern memory. The only one who ever stood a chance was Romney, who veered so hard to the right that he couldn't ever find his way back.
Want a sure-fire recipe for blowing another national election?
1. Keep badmouthing the poor and bowing to the rich. This is an especially clever strategy while the country is clawing out of a recession.
2. To drive away as many women voters as possible, keep talking about banning abortions and cutting off funds for birth control.
3. Another brilliant campaign topic: Outlawing gay marriage. Keep that one on the front burner if you're keen on alienating millions of highly motivated voters.
4. Don't forget to bash big government every chance you get -- just pray that a major hurricane doesn't hit, and the whole country doesn't get reminded of the importance of FEMA, the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and other tax-gobbling slackers.
5. Finally, keeping pushing for laws that would allow anyone who looks vaguely Hispanic to be pulled over in their cars and frisked for citizenship documents. This is how you keep your "base electorate" fired up, your base being angry, white, old and dwindling by the day.
Marco Rubio can't avoid Iowa with its freakishly homogenous demographics (91 percent white), but he can certainly avoid coming off like a jabbering loon. He's already separated himself from the likes of Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann by stating that he actually believes in science.
Now we'll see if the GOP can evolve enough to let him lead the party out of its cave.