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Sen. Marco Rubio's autobiography presents obsessive politician with compelling family story

Marco Rubio was so consumed making fundraising calls for his U.S. Senate race that he didn't notice his youngest son had slipped out of their Miami home and nearly drowned.

It is one of many regrets about his political career that Rubio shares in An American Son, his memoir out today. Even when his campaign looked hopeless in summer 2009, Rubio interrupted a family vacation to fly to Washington for meetings.

Rubio impressed the editors at National Review and his picture made the cover with the title, "Yes, HE CAN." The exposure led to a landslide of media attention and campaign donations.

What happened next is well known, how Rubio went from an underdog against then-Gov. Charlie Crist to Republican star and potential running mate to presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The book presents a paradox. Rubio's rise has been fueled by a rich family narrative, the son of hard-working Cuban immigrants, but a relentless political drive leaves him questioning whether he entered politics too early and missed too much time with his wife and four children. "If I'm focused only on my dreams, who will help them pursue theirs?" he wonders in the 303-page book.

Landing as the immigration debate has raced back into view, the book reveals Rubio's conflicted feelings on the issue, wrestling the law-and-order views he espoused in his Senate run with the compassion of a immigrant son. "If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn't give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn't a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here."

Rubio leaves a portrait of an obsessive, smart and sometimes insecure politician who had to be persuaded by his wife to stick with the Senate campaign. Readers who did not follow the 41-year-old until now or are under the impression he is a tea party creation will be surprised by how long he has been in politics.

He tells a story about campaigning for Bob Dole in New Hampshire in 1996 and afterward getting into a vodka shot contest with friends. Then a law student, Rubio got sick on the plane home, choosing to vomit on a fellow volunteer rather than on influential U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. "I was convinced my brief career in Republican politics had just come to an abrupt and humiliating end thanks to my own immaturity."

By taking on past controversies such as his use of a Florida GOP-issued credit card, Rubio seems eager to address future impediments to his ascendancy. Still, critics may not be satisfied with his ultimate conclusion that he was "sometimes sloppy" with bookkeeping.

The release of An American Son, originally set for October, was rushed to match today's publication of an unauthorized biography by Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia. (Rubio credits GOP speechwriter Mark Salter with helping him "organize and revise the manuscript on a tight schedule.") Roig-Franzia's The Rise of Marco Rubio presents a more analytical take on the Rubio narrative, including questions about Rubio's description of his parents as "exiles." Rubio's parents left Cuba in 1956 before Fidel Castro took power.

Rubio uses his book to defend against the suggestion he embellished the story for political gain. "All I had really said was that my parents were exiles who'd lost their country and made a better life for their children in America. If I had known the exact date of their immigration during the campaign during the claim, I would have made the same claim."

His father, who quit school in Cuba at age 8 to begin working, tried to start his own businesses in the United States but failed and mostly worked as a bartender; his mother held various blue-collar jobs. Money was tight but Rubio describes a warm upbringing, including a time when the family moved to Las Vegas in his youth and briefly joined the Mormon church.

He talks lovingly of his grandfather who instilled in him a love for politics (and Ronald Reagan) and tells of being at his father's deathbed as he slipped into delusion. "In a brief moment of lucidity, he told me, 'Yo se que te estoy molestando mucho" — I know I'm bothering you a lot.' A few minutes later, he fell asleep. I would never see him open his eyes again."

The overarching themes — family, ambition and the American Dream — are woven throughout the book.

"On the streets of the small city of West Miami, in the early months of 1998, I discovered who I was," he wrote of his first campaign, for a city commission seat that put him in intimate contact with Cuban exiles who dominate Miami politics. "I was an heir to two generations of unfulfilled dreams. I was the end of their story."

He was not on the commission long, seizing an opportunity to run in a special election for the Florida House, mindful that the winner would have a seniority edge over a big freshman class of legislators. Rubio quickly set about rising in leadership and campaigning for House speaker, arousing suspicions (false, he says) that he undercut another Miamian vying to be the first Cuban-American speaker in Florida. Rubio claimed that title in 2006 and began a two-year tenure that would begin his confrontations with Crist.

Rubio devotes much of the book to the 2010 Senate race. There are illuminating nuggets, such as a full telling of previously reported efforts by his advisers to get him out of the race when Crist looked invincible. Rubio acknowledges he planned to run for attorney general, but was angered when Crist's team leaked it to the press.

His disdain for Crist, whom he views as a man without convictions, comes through vividly — and humorously. Rubio describes showing up to a TV studio for a debate and Crist was already in position. "I was immediately struck by the smell of Red Bull ... he reeked of it," Rubio wrote. "Plus he had a mug in front of him filled with coffee. I'm in for quite a ride, I thought to myself."

Crist, who had failed to recognize Rubio's slow but steady rise, unleashed a torrent of questions about Rubio's use of a Republican Party of Florida-issued credit card and raised other issues. But Rubio felt he had stood up to the scrutiny, telling debate viewers Crist could not be trusted to challenge President Barack Obama.

Rubio devotes a lot of space to the issues raised by Crist and reporters and dismisses them as political attacks. He concedes that the decision for him and his wife to manage the books for a political committee he used in his run for speaker was a "disaster," but only because it was difficult to keep track of personal versus campaign expenses.

He also dismisses the questions about his use of the GOP credit card. Rubio explains that some of the personal charges that showed up were mistakes, either by his aides or his own doing. "For example, I pulled the wrong card from my wallet to pay for pavers," he wrote.

Throughout, Rubio reflects on his relentless political climb, recounting how he almost lost his girlfriend and future wife to long hours working on the Dole campaign, late nights as a city commissioner and time away from home while campaigning to be House speaker and presiding in Tallahassee. Yet nothing is more stark than when he was making fundraising calls and then found his son Dominick face down in their shallow pool.

"I jumped in and pulled him out. He was silent for a few seconds — seconds that felt like minutes. Then he began to cry and vomit pool water."

Rubio, the hungry politician, returned to the campaign, but says the incident left a lasting lesson. "We hurry on and attend to our business because we need to matter, and we don't always realize that we already do."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com.

Book signing in Tampa

Sen. Marco Rubio will be at Inkwood Books in Tampa at 7 p.m. July 1 to sign copies of his memoir. Inkwood Books is at 216 S Armenia Ave.



The other Rubio book

Read a Tampa Bay Times review of the unauthorized biography The Rise of Marco Rubio at links.tampabay.com.

Sen. Marco Rubio's autobiography presents obsessive politician with compelling family story 06/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 12:54am]

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