By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - His words may or may not be long remembered, but Senator Marco Rubio's swig lives on and on and on.
Across the Web, from Deadspin.com to The New Yorker, and on every cable news channel, the Florida senator's sip from a small bottle of water as he delivered the official Republican response to U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday was the moment of the evening.
In politics, timing can be everything and Rubio experienced a dry mouth at probably the worst time imaginable, speaking to a live TV camera before an audience of millions.
So when the rising political star abruptly stopped in mid-speech to reach for a small Poland Spring bottle of water out of view and took a sip from it, the awkward incident took on a life of its own.
Twitter exploded with reaction. Even Donald Trump offered an opinion: "Next time Marco Rubio should drink his water from a glass as opposed to a bottle—would have much less negative impact."
Poland Spring saw a marketing opportunity, posting on Facebook a picture of a bottle of its water seated in front of a dressing room mirror.
"Reflecting on our cameo. What a night!" the company said.
The website Deadspin.com posted a slow-motion version of the incident and set it to music. On Facebook, someone created a page called "1,000,000 strong to keep Marco Rubio hydrated."
Rubio tried to make the best of it with self-deprecation. He tweeted a picture of the bottle that he grabbed and laughed off the incident in TV interviews.
"I figured I was better off just taking that water and taking the hit for it than being unable to pronounce my words at the end of it. It'd been a long day at work," he told Fox News' "Fox & Friends."
Still, the incident took some of the luster from what was supposed to be Rubio's big moment on the national stage, at a time when Republican voters are looking to the youthful Cuban-American as part of a new wave of party leaders and a potential presidential candidate in 2016.
Rubio, 41, was an active campaigner last year for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and was chosen by leaders of congressional Republicans to deliver the party's official response to Obama's State of the Union address.
It was a golden opportunity, and Rubio was picked because he is a solid conservative voice, has a youthful demeanor and, as a Cuban-American, is appealing to Hispanic voters who typically vote for Democrats.
Republicans thought he did just fine, in spite of the sip of water and the frequent wiping of sweat from his face. They did not think he had damaged his future prospects.
"My perception is Rubio did a good job on the substance and delivery, except for reaching for the water bottle. That's too bad, but if the guy's throat got dry, he probably had no choice," Republican strategist Charlie Black said. "I think overall, for people who had never seen Rubio before, they would've been impressed by what they saw."
Experts said it probably helped Rubio that he quickly made light of the incident and tried to put it behind him.
"The good news for Rubio, in a way, was that he was social-media savvy and he sent out a tweet," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
MacManus teaches students who are interested in careers in politics and she said it was disconcerting to them that the swig of water was dominating the coverage. "It was funny. Levity is good in politics," but if the awkward moment comes to define Rubio, it is troubling, she said.
Republican strategist Ana Navarro said: "There is zero damage to Marco from the water bottle thing. If anything, it's had a silver lining. It extended the shelf life of the interest in the speech and kept us all talking around the water cooler about his speech."
The incident overshadowed what Rubio actually said. He described how he had been raised by middle-class immigrants from Cuba and said Obama's policies were hindering greater economic growth.
"So Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors," he said.
It was the substance of the speech, not the water, that was seized on by the White House, evidence that Democrats see Rubio as a potential future threat.
"I would say one thing, which is that while the messenger may have changed, the message we heard last night from the Republican speaker was entirely consistent with the policy ideas that Mitt Romney campaigned on last year that the American people did not support," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan; Editing by Fred Barbash, Tiffany Wu and Stacey Joyce)
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