WASHINGTON — Stung by revelations that he inaccurately described part of his powerfully told biography, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio moved aggressively Friday to contain any damage, insisting he is "the son of immigrants and exiles."
The fast-rising Republican from Florida acknowledged he got the year wrong for when his parents arrived in the United States from Cuba. They arrived in 1956, not "following Fidel Castro's takeover" in 1959, as his Senate website stated.
"If the Washington Post wants to criticize me for getting a few dates wrong, I accept that," Rubio wrote in a first-person column published Friday by POLITICO. "But to call into question the central and defining event of my parents' young lives — the fact that a brutal communist dictator took control of their homeland and they were never able to return — is something I will not tolerate."
Rubio echoed his points in several news interviews, displaying a fury that was followed by a stream of supportive statements from allies.
"The exile experience was painful," Rubio told the Miami Herald. "The inability of my dad to take me to the place he used to play baseball. He was never able to see his two brothers before they died. My mom was never able to take us to the place where she met my dad, or where they got married. The things that people do with their kids they were never able to do because the place was off limits to them."
By then Democrats had already seized the news, with a group issuing a Web ad stringing together TV appearances where Rubio said his parents came in 1959. That directly links them to the Cubans who fled Castro's Communist regime, and the Post said Rubio "embellishes the facts."
In a time when some political careers are stunted by resume inflating, the controversy could dog Rubio as he is talked about as a possible vice presidential, or even presidential, candidate. The Democratic response is fueled by worries Rubio could attract Hispanic voters to the GOP, even though he has adopted his party's hard edge stance on immigration.
"The question is, will the eventual nominee consider this in his deliberation on who should be VP? They'll certainly look at it," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
There's also the possibility that critics or journalists will scrutinize other parts of Rubio's political life. He has taken hits before from his days in the Florida House, including his use of a Republican Party credit card for personal items.
Still, Rubio probably won points within the GOP at large.
"If anything, it probably strengthens his standing," Sabato said. "They view it as a liberal media attack on one of their rising stars."
Rubio and his defenders quickly placed focus not on the incorrect timeline, but on the assertion that he misrepresented his parents as exiles. Rubio sees no distinction to whether they came before Castro took over or after.
In his climb through state and now national politics, Rubio, 40, has eloquently described their plight in a broader narrative about the American Dream.
His office said his family returned to Cuba on various occasions until 1961 when they left for good after seeing communism take hold.
"People didn't vote for me because they thought my parents came in 1961, or 1956, or any other year," Rubio wrote in the POLITICO piece Friday. "Among other things, they voted for me because, as the son of immigrants, I know how special America really is. As the son of exiles, I know how much it hurts to lose your country."
Rubio's allies —including former Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez — moved swiftly behind him, publicly denouncing the Post, which stood by the story.
"They may have come before the tyrant assumed absolute control but communism is an evil system of government and they wanted nothing to do with it, as was the case with thousands of us," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who was born in Havana.
An official with University of Miami's Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies offered his take.
"I have spent my career studying the Cuban exile community and can say with authority that no distinction is made within the exile community between those who arrived in the years leading up to the revolution, and those who came after," wrote Andy S. Gomez, assistant provost and senior fellow.
Questions about Rubio surfaced in an unlikely place: the far right reaches of the Internet.
Conservative activists infamous for challenging Barack Obama's eligibility to serve as president began months ago to question whether Rubio was also ineligible.
Because Rubio's parents were not U.S. citizens when he was born in 1971 (for unknown reasons they did not apply for citizenship until 1975) the "birthers" contend Rubio is not "natural born," a term in the Constitution that is not defined.
That angle was reported Thursday in a St. Petersburg Times report, which also touched on the question about Rubio's parents.
A Pennsylvania man who obtained copies of the naturalization papers for Rubio's parents (thus establishing their arrival at 1956) blasted Rubio for embellishing his story.
"I think he's been riding on this, 'I'm the descendant of Cuban refugees who escaped Communist Cuba' mantra," Charles Kerchner told the Times this week. "It's not true."
Kerchner and others have contacted Rubio's office and say they got no response. One woman wrote Rubio a letter earlier this month saying his official biography was incorrect, and asked him to fix it.
On Friday, amid the uproar and Rubio's acknowledgement the date was wrong, his office said the information would be corrected.
In the evening it was updated to read: "Marco was born in Miami in 1971 to Cuban exiles who first arrived in the United States in 1956."