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Marco Rubio: The making of a presidential candidate

By Alex Leary
SCOTT KEELER | Times (2008)
Then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, the first-ever Cuban-American to have the job, jokes around during a ceremony in his honor in 2008.

WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio had just been sworn into office and sat down with a half-dozen reporters who covered Florida, an exclusive group by design. The senator had arrived in Washington amid red-hot fanfare and was trying to project readiness to keep his head down.

Within minutes he was asked when he was going to launch a campaign for president — an icebreaker, but not a complete joke.

"It's a circus, you guys are part of the circus," Rubio replied, sounding annoyed during the January 2011 gathering. "They'll talk about somebody else next week. I'm here to be the United States senator from Florida, and the best senator I can. I mean that."

On Monday afternoon in Miami, at a site steeped in symbolism for the bilingual son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio will announce his 2016 campaign for president.

He has been working toward this for the better part of his four years here, building domestic and foreign policy experience and a conservative voting record. He has traveled the country for speeches and fundraising and assembled a campaign staff in waiting.

The move may have been expected but is no less audacious, harkening to Rubio's Senate run against then-Gov. Charlie Crist and a political career marked by one advancement after another — the spoils of natural talent, restless ambition and an acute sense of timing.

"It's very clear for him that the moment is right," said Miami-Dade Commissioner Steve Bovo, a close friend. "He has built enough clout and trust and enthusiasm amongst a broad section of the Republican base. In politics, the longer you're in, the harder it is to sustain that. He understands that. There are very rare occasions where windows of opportunity are ever recaptured."

Just 43 years old, Rubio lacks big legislative accomplishments. But he is confident he can overcome shortcomings with a generational appeal focused on his American Dream story. A gifted speaker, he has become one of the best communicators in the GOP.

"Talking about past achievement is important. It's a credentialing issue," said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the past three Republican administrations. "But ultimately what matters most in terms of the public is, 'What can you do for me in the future?' "

Family matters

How Rubio got to this point is a story worth reviewing.

It begins in 1956, when his parents left Cuba for America, settling in Miami and working as a hotel maid and a bartender. It continues in the 1980s with young Marco Antonio sitting on the family porch listening to his cigar-puffing grandfather extol the virtues of democracy and Ronald Reagan.

"Most kids weren't interested in that stuff. They wanted to play," Rubio's younger sister, Veronica, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2007. "But my brother was fascinated with the history."

And the Miami Dolphins. Rubio would sit at home on Sundays with a notebook, writing down plays. "He would be coaching from home," she said. (Years later Rubio would catch a bullet pass from Dan Marino on the floor of the Florida House, Republicans and Democrats going wild.)

The family narrative is the emotional core of Rubio's speeches. Audience members grow quiet. Some cry. It's gripping even after hearing it repeatedly, as voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina soon will.

But the story took a hit in 2011 when immigration documents revealed Rubio's parents left Cuba before Fidel Castro took over. They were not "exiles," by the conventional definition, as Rubio repeatedly said. The revelation caused a stir, and it could resurface under the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. Rubio argues his parents realized they could no longer live in their homeland and were thus exiled. Still, his official biography no longer refers to them as such.

Rubio went to racially mixed South Miami High and headed to Tarkio College in Missouri on a scholarship after graduating in 1989. Beset with financial trouble, the school folded and with it, 5-foot-9 Rubio's football dreams. He enrolled at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville before getting into the University of Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami Law School in 1996.

That year Rubio settled into a booth at a coffee shop in Miami for an interview with Al Cardenas, a prominent Republican. Cardenas was overseeing Bob Dole's White House bid in Florida and was immediately impressed. "I said to myself, 'This is what we need, someone so young that failure is not an option, who hasn't gone through everything to have a more practical outlook,' " Cardenas recalled in 2010.

Fast climb

Rubio parlayed his experience into a run for West Miami City Commission, outhustling competitors who dismissed him as a kid. Jeb Bush called with congratulations on election night, cementing a relationship that would fuel Rubio's rise in state politics. He jumped to the Legislature in 1999, becoming majority whip, majority leader, House speaker. He was 35, the second-youngest speaker in modern history and the first Cuban-American.

As he climbed, Rubio, who had arrived in Tallahassee with little financial means and a lot of student loan debt, landed a $300,000 job at Broad & Cassel, a Miami firm that had done millions of dollars of legal work for the Florida House.

Even then people saw Rubio as destined for higher office. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, predicted he would eventually become president. Baxley still feels that way but thinks it's early. "I don't want to say he's not ready. I just think with more seasoning he would bring even more to the table. We're extremely grateful to have him in the Senate."

In a 2005 speech as incoming speaker — watched with rapt attention by his parents, Bush and dozens of others — Rubio spoke about a hypothetical single woman in Florida who had grown up in poverty and with little education. Advisers urged him not to, saying it made him sound like a Democrat. Rubio's wife, Jeanette, persuaded him to stick with it.

"While she receives a significant amount of public assistance, it has done little to improve her life. She is trapped in poverty," Rubio said, the speech broadcast in Cuba via Radio Martí. "But today her life has changed forever. Today she held her firstborn child in her arms for the first time. . . . And in her heart burns the hope that everything that has gone wrong in her life will go right for that child, that all the opportunities she never had, her child will." He tied the story to the hope his parents had for him and the aspiration all parents have.

Democrats accused him of empty rhetoric, saying GOP policies were not focused on such mothers. Today, Rubio points to that as a sign he has long been focused on upward mobility. He has spent the past year developing proposals geared toward the middle class, from a sweeping tax overhaul to increasing access to higher education, an attempt to address a voting bloc Republicans have failed to reach.

It's a throwback to his Tallahassee days. His two-year reign as speaker revolved around his book called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future. The proposals ranged from school reforms to promoting alternative energy sources.

More than a few people saw the book as a self-promotional tool for Rubio, who traveled the state to collect ideas — and raise his profile. Many others applauded the initiative. Rubio boasted that all 100 ideas were passed by the House and that 57 became law, but PolitiFact Florida, a fact-checking website of the Tampa Bay Times, concluded that 24 became law and another 10 were partially enacted.

The boldest proposal called for eliminating property taxes on primary homes in favor of a 2.5 cent sales tax increase. Homeowners across Florida were growing frustrated with taxes as property values soared. Rubio jumped out with his "tax swap" and again went on a statewide tour, tapping into grass roots angst that would later give way to the tea party.

For all the hype, including national TV exposure, Rubio couldn't get his proposal through the Legislature. In fact, on many of the big debates during his two years as speaker, Rubio failed to get his way.

"He's a great quarterback except he's never won a game," said former state Sen. Alex Villalobos, a moderate Republican from Miami. "There's been a lot of promotion of Marco Rubio, but you can't put your finger on one thing he's passed. It's not anything I dislike about him, but being president of the United States is being leader of the free world."

Former Rep. Adam Hasner, majority leader under Rubio, said anyone evaluating Rubio has to understand he was double-teamed. "He set out a clear conservative vision for the state. … The reality is that it was blocked by the Senate and Charlie Crist."

That was echoed by former Rep. Dan Gelber, the top Democrat during the Rubio era. While they clashed philosophically, Gelber credits Rubio with empowering Democrats.

"Previously, Democratic leaders almost had no presence or an ability to do much," Gelber said. "I asked him if I could make my own committee appointments and to control our speaking time on the floor. I said, 'Either I'm going to be calling you names all day long or I'm going to try to work with you when I can and call you names half the day.' He said, 'Well I'd rather you have the ability to debate us.' "

Sudden opening

Term limits forced Rubio from the House in 2008.

He called up a reporter one day and laid out a chess board of options. If one office didn't open up, he'd try for another. Meantime he got a job teaching political science at Florida International University, which exposed him to criticism he cashed in on his connections.

Then, a sudden opening.

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez announced he would not run for re-election in 2010. Rubio got in the race in May 2009, after first checking about Bush's intentions. But he soon was in the shadow of another governor, Crist, who was the favorite of Washington Republicans. Almost nonexistent in polls and facing pressure from mentor Cardenas and others, Rubio considered dropping out to run for attorney general, going so far as to write an exit speech that cited strong ideas but weak fundraising.

Incensed when Crist leaked his plans, Rubio reversed course.

"I was resigned to running and losing the Senate race, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn't think of a face-saving way out of it," Rubio wrote in his 2012 memoir, An American Son, which is as much a window into his inner political animal as a paean to his heritage. In one chilling scene, Rubio writes how he was so consumed making fundraising calls at home that his son Dominick nearly drowned.

Tea party wave

Across Florida, and the rest of the country, something was brewing.

Conservatives were fed up with runaway government spending and began to revolt. The tea party was born. When Crist embraced President Barack Obama during a pro-stimulus rally in Fort Myers, Rubio's team pounced. "The hug" became a devastating symbol of Crist's falling out with the Republican base.

Rubio got another break when National Review put him on its cover under the headline "Yes, HE CAN." Campaign donations rolled in from across the country. The New York Times Magazine called him the "first senator from the tea party," an outsider label Rubio shrewdly embraced despite his insider history.

With prominence came attacks. Crist's campaign leaked to reporters the records of millions of dollars in budget pork Rubio sought or endorsed. There was also Rubio's use of a state GOP-issued credit card for personal expenses. Rubio would later admit to mistakes but said he reimbursed any personal expenses and suggested reporters were out to get him.

His conservative rhetoric on the campaign trail also did not always square with his spending history.

As speaker he spent hundreds of thousands on renovations to the House, including a private dining room for lawmakers and added more than 20 jobs. Conservatives blamed Speaker Rubio for not pushing a series of tough immigration bills, but during the Senate campaign Rubio advocated a hard-line position, deeming comprehensive reform as "code for amnesty."

(In 2013, he would make a hard shift back, helping write the Senate's comprehensive reform bill. Conservatives were outraged. He now calls for a piecemeal approach, emphasizing border security.)

"In life, as in policy, things don't always fit into neat little boxes," Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010, "but overwhelmingly I have a record that testifies to a commitment to limited government."

Crist's attempts to stymie Rubio grew more desperate and bizarre — he began suggesting Rubio used the GOP credit card for a "back wax" — but they fell flat. "I had been on defense every day for a month. It had been a miserable time," Rubio recalled in his book.

"Yet our lead had grown. I was shocked. I imagine Charlie was even more surprised."

At 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, 2010, an Associated Press reporter turned to Rubio and said the election was being called. A senator and national political star was born. Rubio did keep a low profile when he arrived in Washington, using a model developed by Hillary Clinton.

But it didn't last long. Soon Rubio was eagerly claiming the spotlight. He was knocked down in the immigration debate but four years later, he is on the eve of his biggest moment.

"I always knew, despite my hopes to the contrary, that he would do real well in this business," said Gelber, the Democratic former lawmaker. "Marco has a televangelical ability to communicate, and he is extremely disciplined. He could catch fire and he's shown he's able to do that.

"At first I thought he was getting in the presidential race just to show up. Now I'm beginning to think he's in it to win. I think he likes talking to a crowd of people that aren't his people necessarily, that don't buy into him. He likes that challenge."

Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]. Follow @learyreports.