WASHINGTON — When a French TV station set out to understand the American phenomenon known as the tea party, it sent a reporter overseas to Florida, down a dusty country road, past a bug-swarmed pond, and into a Pasco County pasture filled with people waving American flags.
It was Oct. 30, three days before Election Day. The crowd had come to Hallelujah Acres Ranch to hear Republican Senate nominee Marco Rubio, frequently hailed — and claimed — as one of the tea party's biggest success stories.
But the typically unflappable candidate seemed uncomfortable with the French reporter's questions about his tea party ties, as he did when an admirer asked him to autograph a tea party banner.
If the tea party is expecting Rubio to plant its yellow "Don't Tread on Me'' flag in the hallowed Senate chamber, it's in for a letdown. This career politician who once carried the state party's American Express card defines himself first and foremost as a Republican.
Rubio's pollster, Whit Ayers, tactfully put it this way: "I think he'll carry the banner for hopeful and optimistic conservatism and whoever wants to follow that banner is welcome to join."
Rubio has already made it clear that he will not be a rogue senator. One day after the election, he declared his support for the GOP establishment when he said he looked forward to serving under Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. He did not mention Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, viewed as the more ideologically pure conservative and alternative power center, who championed Rubio's campaign early on.
Two days later, McConnell tapped Rubio to deliver the weekly GOP address.
Rubio, 39, struck a pragmatic tone at the post-election news conference in Miami, saying Republicans and Democrats have to work together to tackle big, immediate problems such as the national debt and the war in Afghanistan. He did not lob salvos at President Barack Obama, as he usually does, and said he would reach out to Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
"Early on in the primary, a conservative group of passionate, well-intentioned people coincided with his beliefs and somehow he got this tea party label, which I don't think is totally representative," said Republican fundraiser Jorge Arrizurieta.
"Did he embrace and receive the support of the tea party? Absolutely," Arrizurieta said. "But will he move away from being a real Republican candidate? No way."
Tea party leaders still claim Rubio as their own. Among Florida voters, 39 percent said they supported the tea party movement. Rubio got 86 percent of that group.
"He had a great campaign, a great staff, but if it hadn't been for the tea party, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to win. The tea party gave him exposure," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party.
"The movement," he added, "is looking at Marco to fight for us."
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Without a doubt, Rubio owes some of his success to the tea party. A year ago when he was down 30 points in the polls in the Republican primary behind Gov. Charlie Crist and shunned by the GOP establishment, Rubio found an eager audience at tea party rallies. His fiery rhetoric about the direction of the country hit the right notes.
"I am here today as a fellow American whose parents were born in a country that lost itself to socialism," the Cuban-American Rubio said in West Palm Beach on April 15, 2009. "My parents lost their country to a government; I will not lose mine to a government."
He railed about a multitrillion dollar national debt the country's children will pay "by being taxed into the Third World." The crowd mobbed him with applause.
As the economy continued to falter and anger over Obama's agenda grew, Rubio's profile grew along with the tea party. The New York Times made a statement when it put Rubio on its Sunday magazine cover with the headline, "The First Senator From the Tea Party?"
Countless news outlets took the cue. It's no surprise the French reporter picked Rubio to follow, and no surprise that nearly 300 media outlets showed up in Miami for his victory celebration.
But Rubio has long been an insider, involved in Republican Party politics since college, a state legislator who became speaker of the House at age 35, and the scion of former Gov. Jeb Bush. He's perhaps the nation's most successful candidate at bridging the gap between the conservative establishment and the grass roots.
"He understands and appreciates the job of leadership," said Dan Murphy, of the BGR Group lobbying firm in Washington, which hosted fundraisers for Rubio.
"He'll remember the people who helped bring him to the dance, but as a former speaker of a big body, he'll have a better appreciation of how to push his agenda by working with leadership, without marginalizing yourself and being way out there on the fringe," Murphy said. "He may be the most sophisticated member of the tea party to arrive in Washington."
Being branded as a tea party politician has its risks. The movement fueled a national debate on government spending but also spawned unconventional ideas like repealing the 17th Amendment and taking the election of U.S. senators out of hands of voters and back into the hands of state legislatures. To some in the tea party, government is not just out of control. It is the enemy. Big rallies outside the U.S. Capitol brought strident calls to action and more than a few signs with Obama wearing a Hitler moustache.
The tea party scored numerous victories Tuesday but also showed some of its shortcomings, with the defeat of high-profile candidates such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, a loss that helped keep the GOP from taking over the Senate, as it did the House.
Rubio is also not like Kentucky's senator-elect, Rand Paul, a tea party candidate who seems comfortable as an outlier. Populist movements may fade but the Republican Party will not. Rubio is "not one that wants to shake up the establishment just for the sake of shaking it up," said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Rubio occasionally joined the political fray, once refusing to denounce those who questioned Obama's citizenship and expressing doubt about the science of global warming. But as his campaign took off, he attended fewer tea party events and skipped a big tea party convention in Nashville in February.
Rubio had an opportunity to cozy up to tea party darling and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, but his campaign never emphasized her support.
"Marco, keep up the good work. Call me. Can I help ya?" Palin told a conservative blogger who asked about Rubio at a conservative gathering in New Orleans in April.
He never did.
In the final stretch of the campaign, when it was clear he would win, Rubio showed up to a big rally in Orlando featuring Palin. But he left before she came on stage, denying opponents a photograph that could be used against him in the future.
Over the months, Rubio developed a line that neither attached nor distanced himself from the movement, the balancing act of a practiced politician.
"The tea party is an expression of that widespread sentiment in America that Washington, D.C., is broken," Rubio told the French reporter, "that both parties are to blame and they want leaders who will put America back on the right track."
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As he campaigned across the vote-rich Interstate 4 corridor in the final week of the campaign, Rubio was greeted by big and small crowds, from 700 in Sarasota to a few dozen in Clearwater. By far, the people who showed up were mainstream Republicans.
Vicky Kiburz was one of the few tea party activists to attend a Rubio rally in Palm Harbor, waving a giant tea party flag to passers-by on U.S. 19 as others waved Rubio campaign signs.
"I think he has a good enough grasp of how the process is conducted, but at the same time has a real clear concept of what we want," she said. "The tea party doesn't need a bunch of bomb throwers. We understand that."
Rubio continued to toss out his usual anti-Obama-stimulus-health-care lines, but also said the GOP has to stand for something other than just the opposition.
"We're going to have to come together and solve some pretty major issues really quickly," he said in Clearwater on Nov. 1. "We're going to have to work hard if we want to save Social Security and Medicare. We're going to have to work together to bring this debt under control."
With that, Rubio climbed back into his chartered jet and was gone.
Times staff writer Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.