TAMPA — The son of a Cuban immigrant bartender and maid, Marco Rubio stands on the biggest stage of his life tonight when he introduces himself — and the Republican presidential nominee — to the nation.
It's a dream fulfilled. And deferred.
The freshmen Florida senator from West Miami said he's grateful for the high-profile spot. But Rubio not-so-secretly wanted more: the vice-presidential slot on Mitt Romney's ticket or the keynote address at the Republican National Convention.
Rubio, whose sights are ultimately on the White House, got the next best thing: the introduction of Romney on a night when nearly everyone who wants to vote for president is watching.
"It's a tremendous honor to be able to give this speech in my home state in front of a lot of family and friends who have been involved with me on a personal level," Rubio said Wednesday.
"I hope for my mom, who's watching from home, and my dad, wherever he's watching from, it will be affirmation that their lives mattered," said Rubio. His father passed away in 2010.
What makes this speech different from all others?
"I don't know, 39 million people probably," Rubio said with a smile.
For those who have watched the 41-year-old Miami native ascend the heights of political stardom, tonight's speech won't have much new in it.
But this isn't for insiders. It's for a national crowd that knows relatively little about Rubio, the only Hispanic Republican in the U.S. Senate.
The speech will be only 15 minutes long — half as long as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's keynote on Tuesday night that, to many at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, fell flat compared to the address Romney's wife, Ann, gave right before him.
In contrast to Christie's speech, Rubio's is expected to dwell less on himself and more on Romney. Like vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, Rubio's widely viewed as being a more effective messenger about Romney's record than Romney.
"Mitt Romney knows how prosperity is created. It's created when people take their own money and invest it in a business. They employ more people. Those people take their money and spend it in the economy, creating jobs for others," Rubio said Wednesday.
"Barack Obama believes prosperity's created when the government spends money or creates a new program," Rubio said. "That's what this is about."
It's also about Rubio, a lawyer who first won office at the age of 26. Cultivating powerful political allies along the way, Rubio served on the West Miami City Commission and then in the Florida Legislature, which he left in 2009 after serving as House speaker for two years.
In 2010, Rubio did what seemed like the impossible: He beat Gov. Charlie Crist to capture an open U.S. Senate seat. He also chased Crist out of the Republican Party. Crist then ran as an independent and is scheduled to speak at next week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Rubio laughed when he was asked about Crist on Wednesday: "He's running out of parties."
Rubio's speech isn't a make-or-break moment. His 2010 win and his rhetorical ability to advance conservative causes catapulted him into the ranks of elite conservatives in Washington.
He's so sought-after that he conducted nine interviews in 97 minutes Monday, from local television stations to Black Entertainment Television, CNN, CNN Español, Telemundo, Univision and Fox. On Wednesday, more than a dozen cameras and more than two dozen reporters surrounded Rubio after a walk-through on the convention floor. Rubio seamlessly alternated between Spanish- and English-language interviews. As he finished, only a fraction of the reporters paid attention to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who followed Rubio.
Romney's campaign won't say why Rubio was passed over in favor of Ryan.
Republican advisers say Rubio's record of accomplishments is thin, and the campaign would have faced uncomfortable questions over Rubio's use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card during his time in the Legislature.
Rubio has also stuck by Rep. David Rivera, of Miami, who faces federal investigations into his campaign and private finances.
One well-known liberal, Comedy Central comedian Jon Stewart, sat down with Rubio on Tuesday during an extended Daily Show episode and said it was better that Rubio didn't get picked by Romney.
"I think this is much better for you," Stewart said, asking how Rubio found out he wouldn't be picked as Romney's running mate.
"He called and let me know he was making the announcement the next day," Rubio said.
"I cursed at him," Rubio joked.
"You are introducing him," Stewart said. "Have they said to you, 'Hey, charisma boy, dude, take it down a notch?' "
"All they've asked me to do is introduce the governor," said Rubio. "They've given me 15 minutes to say anything I want."
Rubio's fame is certain to last longer than 15 minutes.
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.