TAMPA — It wasn't intended to be a campaign stop, but as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio visited a South Tampa bookseller Sunday to promote his memoir, a throng of vocal and partisan supporters were waiting to cheer him on.
As the 41-year-old senator stepped from a black tour bus — emblazoned with a photo of the cover of An American Son — applause and shouts of "Marco" erupted from the crowd. Some waved flags. Others, decked out in "Elect Rubio" buttons, stretched to shake hands with Rubio, who smiled and quickly entered Inkwood Books.
A line of about 150 supporters snaked outside. Some said they came to meet their senator. Many said they were there to cheer a rising star in the Republican Party.
"I've always been inspired by Marco, I mean Mr. Rubio," said University of Florida student Robert Demaio, 19, who drove from Seminole with his brother, Christian Demaio, 16.
Rubio's two-hour visit had the feel of a campaign stop, but the Republican dismissed assertions the visit was connected to Mitt Romney's presidential bid. He said he was there just to promote his book and meet supporters.
After stops Sunday in Naples, Sarasota and Tampa, Rubio and his aides were set to push ahead today to book signings in Orlando and Jacksonville.
"This is about the American dream and the struggles of a family," he said. "And when you get right down to it, we're all Americans."
An American Son story chronicles Rubio's relentless ascent up the political ladder, from his days as law student campaigning for Bob Dole in New Hampshire in 1996 to his time on the Miami City Commission and later as freshman state House member.
The story also delves deeply into his 2010 Senate race and contentious relationship with former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, once the favorite to win.
Themes of family, ambition and the American Dream are sprinkled throughout the book.
Rubio recounts his upbringing by blue-collar parents and his special relationship with a grandfather, who instilled in him a love of politics and Ronald Reagan.
"When I read his book, it was like reading my own story," said Marisella Coll, 58, who emigrated from Cuba when she was 5, two years behind her father, Puro Hernandez, who was barred from returning to Cuba. "I told him we Cuban-Americans are very proud of him. He's an inspiration. He's one of us," said Coll, of north Tampa. "If my father was able, he would be here."
Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 661-2454 or [email protected]