WEST MIAMI — Marco and Jeanette Rubio, sitting side by side on their brown sofa in their sunny house, could be any young couple musing about life: juggling four kids, a job that separates them, aging parents, their faith and whether or not to move.
Only they're not just any couple. At 40, he is the most prominent Latino in national politics today, and a widely touted prospect to be Mitt Romney's running mate. She is a shy, behind-the-scenes booster married to her high school sweetheart who has never given a speech and bristles when the media reduces her life to a brief stint as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader.
Whether Marco Rubio is on the 2012 ticket this year or not, he and his wife are moving into rarefied air in American politics; he'll be at the top of the 2016 list of GOP contenders if Romney loses. In an exclusive 90-minute interview with POLITICO — Jeanette's first-ever extended interview — the couple seems to believe they are ready for the invasive tsunami of press coverage and vetting that could sweep over them at any minute while at the same time realizing they can never truly be braced.
"I'm prepared for the idea that no matter what he does — especially when there's talk of him being the VP candidate — that (there) are things that are going to come out," says Jeanette Dousdebes Rubio, 38. "And through the Senate campaign, we already went through a lot. … That really prepared us, or at least me."
Indeed, Marco Rubio is ubiquitous these days, raising his profile through national television interviews, a foreign policy address and coming to your Kindle soon, his personal memoir, An American Son. There is also an unauthorized biography coming out on the same day by Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia entitled, The Rise of Marco Rubio.
This is definitely Marco's moment, and regardless of what happens in the next few months, Rubio knows that this "Meet the Rubios" flash is his opportunity to address skeptics and define himself politically and personally before anyone else does it for him. His forthcoming book, he says, will offer details about growing up as the son of Cuban immigrants, meeting his wife and his faith.
His wife has largely eschewed the spotlight, purposefully choosing to focus her energy and time on keeping a "balance" for their children. In fact, so rare were her appearances during the Senate campaign that the local media felt compelled to note when she showed up — even if she failed to utter a word.
"I'm not pushing myself out there. I need to be with (the) kids just to give them that balance," Jeanette Rubio explains. "If he's out there, I feel like I have to be here for them, to give them that reality."
But she says that "in the future, if I have to do it, of course I'll do it. But in general, I am shy."
Those who know the couple say that while Jeanette prefers to remain offstage, she is an integral part of everything he does. She says she actually likes campaigning — when she can get away. "You meet a lot of different people and you hear their stories. The part that's difficult, I think, in campaigning is the part where you have to deal with the negativity that comes," she says. "It puts a lot of strain on the family."
Marco Rubio writes in his book that when his long-shot quest for the Senate in 2010 was mired in the accusations of financial malfeasance, Jeanette convinced him not to drop out. "There were times that he said, 'I don't want to do this,' and I just encouraged him," she says. "I really believe that when things are hardest — those things make you stronger."
When he is not playing his increasingly large role on the national stage, he and Jeanette and their children, ages 4 to 12, live in this Hispanic enclave, a shielded bubble in a transient world. Their house is a stone's throw from the recreational center where the couple met as teenagers 22 years ago. His mother and sister live three blocks away, in the house where he grew up. Her mother is a 10-minute drive away. Their children have a dozen cousins living within 5 miles. "At the end of the day, I have a network — I have my family, my friends that help me when I can't do it," says Jeanette about her husband being in Washington all week. "I don't have a nanny or anything like that. I have my family."
There is nothing opulent about their home, but it is warm and bright and simply decorated with white and brown furniture. In the driveway sits the senator's black pickup that he uses for weekend errands. "By the way, sorry for the patches (on the wall)," he offers. "They're painting here."
They have talked and talked about moving the family to Washington — and even looked at houses to rent in Virginia last year — but it's a tough call for them. "My mom is older now and I need to get back and see her — and I want to be in touch with our state," he says. "Our whole support network is here. … I mean, I'd like for them to be there, if we can work it out."
"It's hard for him," she says. "But it's a question of whether we should uproot everyone when our life is here."
The Rubios both attended South Miami Senior High School, but they didn't meet until a couple of years after he graduated, when he was 19 and she was 17.
Their story in their own words:
Her: "I was at the (West Miami Recreation Center) one day playing volleyball and he spotted me."
Him: "I did the background work first — who is she, what is she all about. I had actually seen her before that."
Her: "But I didn't know that he had seen me."
Him: "Her younger sister was dating a kid who lives two doors down from me, and one day I happened to be with him and he went by his girlfriend's house, and she answered the door."
Her: "So he asked questions and friends put something together where we would go to the movies and he would sit next to me and then — you know, coincidentally. Throughout the whole movie he would start talking to me, which I thought was a little annoying."
They started dating shortly after, but Marco was heading to the University of Florida in Gainesville in the fall, which forced a long-distance romance in an era of few cell phones, no Internet, no Skype.
Him: "It was harder and harder for me even to stay up there on the weekends, just because I wanted to be back here. So I would write these really long letters."
Her: "One of the letters that he wrote to me, I still have it. It was about how we were building a foundation and we were going through the steps. And he wrote all the steps in comparison to where we were in our relationship."
Him: "I think the purpose of the letter — I was trying to explain to her how I thought that even though it was tough being apart from each other, we were investing in the early stages of our relationship, which would be the foundation for whatever came of it down the road."
Rubio went onto the University of Florida law school while Jeanette remained in West Miami and attended Miami-Dade Community College and worked part-time as a bank teller. In 1997, following his sister and her sister, she briefly joined the Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad, practicing her routines four nights a week — while he got the benefit of free tickets to games.
"I always wanted to be an NFL player," interjects her husband, "and now I'm going to have to tell my kids that the only one of her two parents that ever touched an NFL field was her mom."
Around that time, Marco proposed and she quit the squad to attend the International Fine Arts College with the intention of getting a degree in fashion design. They married in 1998. "I had only one semester left, and then I got pregnant," she explains.
"After we got married," he quickly adds.
And now, she has no interest in being a fashion designer. In the past year, she has been working part-time outside the home, at the Braman Family Foundation — run by wealthy Miami businessman and philanthropist Norman Braman — helping it identify projects and organize its giving. She has also taken an interest in the issue of human trafficking and has pushed her husband to use his platform to address the issue — which he has done.
"I've also just never been in a position where she's had to give stump speeches or do things of that nature. It just hasn't been what we do," he says.
"I think that as time went by, I would probably feel more and more comfortable with that role," she says.
Despite the Rubios' apparently grounded personal life, and the junior senator's oratorical and charismatic gifts, there is predictable skepticism about the readiness of a 40-year-old to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Is he intellectually ready at this stage of his life to possibly ascend to the presidency?
Is he ready to be vetted — one of the most grueling, invasive background checks known to man?
He is ready for the questions.
"I certainly feel like I'm qualified to be the United States senator from Florida, not just by virtue of the fact that the people of the state elected me, but what I did leading up to that point," he says, carefully laying out his resume but refusing to talk about Romney's selection process. He says his tough Senate race was an eye-opener and a microcosm of national politics. He volunteers that part of the experience he's gaining is in foreign policy as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — a credential Romney lacks. "You really take away from (official overseas) trips and from those visits with the heads of state and other prominent governmental leaders a real understanding of the issues that nations are facing and the issues in our bilateral relationships with them."
He is defensive about the suggestion that as a conservative Cuban-American, he doesn't represent the interests of the larger Hispanic population. "Dividing Cubans against the rest of the Hispanic community is … offensive. I mean, my wife's not Cuban; her family's not Cuban," he said of Jeanette, who is the daughter of Colombian immigrants. The votes of all Hispanics, he says, "has to be earned through a message and a vision and a set of policies that inspire people."
In addition to his youth and minimal experience in national politics, there is also some political baggage that some say could scare off the ever-cautious Romney. At the forefront are public spending issues. A credit card scandal that erupted in the middle of his Senate campaign — but that has received little national attention — exposed that Rubio and others used a Florida Republican Party credit card for personal purchases. Rubio has said it was a mistake and that he paid American Express for all the personal charges. But it still dogs him. Some expenditures from his political action committees to his wife and other family members have also been questioned. At best, it was a careless commingling of funds that any low-level politician knows not to do.
"There are things I wish we would have done differently, there's no doubt about it — and would do differently and we now do differently," he said. "But then again, I've never learned from my successes. Everything I've ever learned has been from mistakes — I'm saying that with life and not just in politics. "
In his forthcoming book, Rubio addresses another source of curiosity in his life: his unusual spiritual odyssey from Catholicism to Mormonism to the Baptist faith and back to Catholicism. He has at various times in the past decade identified his denomination differently in the Florida Legislature clerk's handbook. He sees nothing odd about it. He and his mother and sister joined the Mormon church when they were living in Las Vegas in the late '70s. According to a family member quoted in Roig-Franzia's book, it was young Marco who convinced his family to return to the Catholicism.
"The truth is I have been a Catholic, and I am again — and I am, and I feel very strongly about the Catholic Church, but the bottom line is we found this (other) church that we liked," he explains about his decision to attend Christ Fellowship, a megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
He tries to attend Mass daily while in Washington. Jeanette was also raised Catholic but considers herself more of a devout Christian that a devout Catholic. The family attends two services on weekends, Mass on Sunday and Saturday evening services at Christ Fellowship. He only takes communion at Mass, he says.
Of Christ Fellowship, he says, "they're excellent teachers of the written word. They're excellent teachers of applicable — of how you apply the principles of Christianity and the powerful teachings of Christianity not just to your life but to eternity. We just liked the church. And my kids liked it and my wife liked it and our family liked it, and for a time, that's the only place I went to exclusively, but always felt called back to the Catholic Church and to the Catholic faith.
But for any more detail about his journey and dance with Catholicism, he says, "you'll have to buy the book."
POLITICO and the Tampa Bay Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.