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Unauthorized biography of Marco Rubio paints nuanced, largely flattering portrait

Marco Rubio can breathe easier.

A soon-to-be released biography of the Republican vice presidential contender turns out to be a nuanced and largely flattering portrait of one of the most exciting figures on the national stage, rather than the hatchet job some Rubio allies had feared.

The Rise of Marco Rubio by Washington Post writer Manuel Roig-Franzia may leave some readers questioning Rubio's political core on issues ranging from immigration to government spending, but it's unlikely to dent Rubio's star power. Nor will it enhance the arguments of those who say Rubio has been inadequately vetted to be seriously considered as Mitt Romney's running mate.

The unauthorized biography explores Rubio's remarkable life story as the son of working-class Cuban immigrants whose extraordinary political gifts and instincts helped him rise to West Miami city commissioner, to the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, to a 40-year-old senator overshadowing colleagues with decades more experience.

It's a complex tale thoroughly reported to the point that Roig-Franzia dug up a 50-year-old recording of the immigration hearing of Rubio's grandfather, nearly deported from America a decade before Rubio was born.

The Tampa Bay Times obtained a 242-page advance copy of the book, which is scheduled for release June 19. Rubio has his own memoir scheduled for publication at the same time.

For Americans just getting to know Rubio, there is plenty in the book to raise eyebrows — criticism that he used Republican Party credit cards and political committees for personal expenses, for instance — though most of that has been detailed by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. Those allegations did little to damage Rubio's Senate campaign in 2010.

The book recounts his longtime friendship with U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, who has been engulfed in assorted investigations into his personal finances and consulting work. And it delves into Rubio having often said or implied that his parents fled Fidel Castro, when in fact they immigrated to Miami before Castro took power.

Roig-Franzia writes: Whether Rubio intended to mislead voters or simply never investigated the circumstances of his family's arrival is a question only he can answer. What is clear is that during his rise he placed great emphasis on his family's narrative, and he was eager to identify himself as the son of exiles.

Likewise, tea party conservatives unfamiliar with Rubio's legislative record may be surprised he often supported big spending, whether it was public money for a new baseball stadium or local projects.

Rubio did not speak to the author. Plenty of friends, legislative colleagues and relatives did, however.

They help him write a rich portrait of a thoroughly likable and ambitious politician, who outhustled political rivals to rise to the speakership and to the U.S. Senate. Rubio had a knack for landing plum positions — working on redistricting in the Legislature or landing on South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's conservative policy committee — to help him advance.

In Washington, the author notes, Rubio's star power and media savvy helped him rise above the seniority system that usually establishes power.

Of Rubio's start in Washington, he writes: Power came to those who waited. But Rubio was not one who waited. Validation outside the building — on blogs, among conservative activists, on Twitter and Facebook — gave him more stroke inside it. More stroke inside the building gave him more validation outside it.

He also notes the hardball tactics Rubio's media handlers use to guard his image, including a well-publicized skirmish with Univision when it started to report about an old criminal arrest of Rubio's brother-in-law. Rubio's team argued that the network was going after a private citizen and said Univision offered to spike the story if Rubio agreed to an interview with their star anchor, Jorge Ramos. Univision denies that.

Roig-Franzia recounts a heated conference call about the story between Univision editors and Rubio's staff, including political adviser Todd Harris. Harris, the book says, at one point asked if the editors thought it would be appropriate to "poke into the private life of Jorge Ramos."

Roig-Franzia writes: The Univision staffers heard the question as a threat. For a consultant who represents a senator who sits on committees with subpoena power to make such a suggestion made … those journalists uncomfortable.

Harris called that "insane" and said he never said that.

The book also delves into Rubio's unusual religious journey, which included being baptized as a Mormon at age 8 when his family lived in Las Vegas: He was the little boy who went to Catholic Mass. Then the adolescent who embraced Mormonism. He was the teenager who circled back to Catholicism. Then the thirty-something who defined himself as a Baptist. He was the ascendant politician who wanted to be Catholic again.

A cousin told the author that Rubio was always deeply focused on religion and as an adolescent persuaded his family to leave the Mormon church.

Most of the people quoted by name say flattering things about the senator, though former Hialeah mayor and onetime political ally Raul Martinez was stunned when Rubio endorsed Arizona's tough immigration law while running for U.S. Senate.

Writes Roig-Franzia: "This is the new Marco," Martinez thought to himself. "The I-want-to-be-a-senator-at-any-cost Marco."

Former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd weighs in as well, suggesting that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had selfish motives for deepening his friendship with Rubio as he became speaker.

Byrd has heard the stories that "Bush helped Marco." "I think the opposite is true. As Bush was waning, Jeb seized upon Marco as someone he should hitch to."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

Unauthorized biography of Marco Rubio paints nuanced, largely flattering portrait 05/01/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 10:48pm]
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