RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address next Tuesday. It's his biggest opportunity all year to address the American people. Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner announced that Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Washington state would deliver the official GOP rebuttal. NPR's Mara Liasson has more.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The goal of the Republican response is to provide a counterbalance to the president's speech. Although television audiences have declined over the years, Mr. Obama will still get a mighty helping of free media. Ron Bonjean, a former House Republican leadership aide who's been involved in planning the GOP responses, says his party wants a check on the president even if its audience is a mere fraction of his.
RON BONJEAN: The amount of people who watch the State of the Union completely dwarfs those who watch the Republican response. But it is important for our party to provide a response because it does make it in the news coverage.
LIASSON: The congressional Republican leadership had a lot of choices starting with a long list of 2016 presidential hopefuls. But once their biggest rising star, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, was sidelined by scandal, they decided to use the speech to address one of their party's biggest electoral deficits - women. Just hours after the Republican National Committee named five women as their 2014 rising stars, Speaker Boehner made no bones about why he chose Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
She's the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, he tweeted, but more importantly - a mom. the YouTube video introducing McMorris Rodgers showcases that new message. She has three kids. The eldest, Cole, was born with Downs syndrome.
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REPRESENTATIVE CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS: I'm so grateful for Cole and his influence on my life. And I'm a better legislator. I'm a better person because of Cole's...
LIASSON: Lately, the job of State of the Union responder has been the kiss of death or at least a banana peel for political rising stars. Republican strategist Mike Murphy describes it as a rite of passage, a kind of hazing ritual for up and coming politicians.
MIKE MURPHY: It's our equivalent of being asked to eat 25 raw potatoes and chug nine six-packs of beer at the fraternity. It's a step along the way. But anybody doing it is never as bad or as good as it sounds going in. But there has kind of been this curse.
LIASSON: Cathy McMorris Rodgers doesn't have to worry about the curse. She's not running for higher office at the moment, and that may be lucky for her. Since President Obama's been in office, other Republican responders haven't fared so well. In 2009, the GOP response was delivered by Louisiana governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, who failed to impress.
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GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: Like the president's father, my own parents came to this country from a distant land. When they arrived in Baton Rouge, my mother was already four and a half months pregnant. I was what folks in the insurance industry now call a preexisting condition.
LIASSON: Others did better- then Virginia governor Bob McDonnell gave the speech in 2010 from his state capitol surrounded by Republican legislators.
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GOVERNOR BOB MCDONNELL: I'm joined by fellow Virginians to share a Republican perspective on how to...
LIASSON: That speech was a hit, but some might say the curse caught up with McDonnell - just this week he was indicted on 14 counts of fraud. Then there was the response that sounded just fine but didn't look so good on TV.
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SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Good evening. I'm Marco Rubio. I'm blessed to represent Florida in the United States Senate.
LIASSON: A promising beginning for the man who at the time was being called the Republican savior - but then Rubio got thirsty. Ron Bonjean.
BONJEAN: Senator Marco Rubio grabbed for a bottle of water when he was doing the speech. And anything that distracts you from that looks like a flop. So unfortunately, his entire speech was wiped out because of that bottle of water. You know, he was able to put behind him but it really didn't help him much.
LIASSON: So giving the GOP response can be a mixed blessing, but Republicans are hedging their bets. There are actually two Republicans responses: Utah Republican senator Mike Lee will be delivering the Tea Party response. Lee has no known presidential aspirations. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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