Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants whose rise in politics has been aided by charisma and a gift for speaking, entered the race for president on Monday, casting himself as a leader for a new generation of Americans worried about succeeding as past generations have.
"This election is not just about what laws we will pass. It is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be," the 43-year-old Republican U.S. senator said before hundreds of supporters at Miami's Freedom Tower.
"We Americans are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future," he said. "Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can't do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past. We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them."
He was drawing a direct contrast to Hillary Clinton, who got in the race on the Democratic side a day earlier.
But it was obvious, too, Rubio was making the case against his friend Jeb Bush, the 62-year-old former Florida governor and member of a political dynasty who has all but declared his candidacy.
"I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot," Rubio said, his supporters sending up raucous cheers. "Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as president."
He becomes the third official Republican to enter the race, behind Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Rubio chose as a backdrop the Freedom Tower, which decades ago was a government processing site for Cuban refugees — the "Ellis Island of the South" — emphasizing his family story and concern the American Dream is slipping away for too many.
"Why is this happening in a country that for over two centuries has been defined by equality of opportunity? Because while our people and economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century," he said, returning to the generational argument.
Behind him a large sign displayed his campaign slogan, "A New American Century." Rubio was joined by his wife, Jeanette, and their four children.
His elderly mother, Oriales, was not in attendance; his father, Mario, died while Rubio was campaigning for Senate in 2010.
"In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful," Rubio said. "But I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege."
It was quintessential Rubio: flawless in delivery and steeped in the emotion of his family story. He is a conservative, but his friendly disposition and delivery makes him seem less ideological.
He did not dive much into policy but talked of reforming the tax code, repealing Obamacare and reducing regulations — all of which he said would grow jobs and the economy. He espoused a tough foreign policy, ripping "dangerous concessions" to Iran that threaten Israel.
Rubio is trying to re-create the balancing act that got him to the U.S. Senate, drawing from the activist tea party wing of the Republican Party and the establishment wing that wants to reach more voters, including Hispanics.
In a large field of candidates, his goal is to be the first choice of a lot of voters and the second choice of an even bigger group. But challenges await.
Rubio will have to raise money to compete and contend with a Republican base that reacted angrily to his role in writing the Senate's 2013 immigration bill. He spent 2014 backing away from that legislation, but voters and rivals may not be willing to forgive him.
And then there is the Obama issue. One of the GOP's primary attacks on President Barack Obama — who was also a golden-tongued first-term senator lacking legislative accomplishment — has been that he was unprepared for the job.
"It's not a question of Obama ruining it for him. He's laid the path and shown that the country is willing to elect a young minority," said Stephen Helfman, 58, a lawyer in Miami who attended Rubio's speech. "Obama just didn't have the right vision. Marco has an incredible 'new vision' thing that we desperately need in this country."
Helfman praised Bush, too, but added, "Jeb is probably one generation ahead. We need the youth that is in Rubio."
Rubio came to national prominence in his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign against former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and has been working toward a presidential decision almost ever since, using a political action committee to build a stable of consultants and a national campaign donor base.
Looming large is Bush, who is traveling to early primary states and raising tens of millions at fundraisers, including one Monday in Vero Beach. Bush did not issue a statement about Rubio on Monday, though he hasn't for others who have entered the race and he and Rubio shared a plane ride home Friday from an NRA convention in Nashville.
Few top elected Republicans were in attendance for Rubio's speech, as many have lined up behind Bush. Audience members said they were torn between Rubio and Bush, but bought into the younger candidate's message.
"Jeb is a perfect candidate, but Marco brings something fresh," said Peter Leon, 52, who came to the United States from Cuba as a boy.
Rubio took the stage about 6 p.m., deliberately timed for the start of Bret Baier's widely watched show on Fox News. He formally declared he was running at 6:13 p.m., the crowd exploding into chants of "Marco. Marco. Marco!"
He then sat down for an hourlong special hosted by Sean Hannity, surrounded by supporters. He'll try to reach different audiences today, with interviews on ABC's Good Morning America and NPR.
On Monday morning, Rubio officially informed campaign donors and his staff. He stressed that it was not an easy decision but that he felt he was "uniquely qualified" as a presidential candidate.
Rubio said he would mount an aggressive campaign but would continue to serve Florida in the Senate for the remainder of his term. He has said he will not keep the backup of running for re-election should his presidential run fizzle.
He has already missed a lot of votes and that will only grow. While campaigning in California recently, he missed a classified hearing on the threat presented by the Islamic State.
So far, Rubio has shown discipline of sticking to his message but attacks will come from all sides.
A Democratic group, People for the American Way, on Monday launched a Spanish-language radio ad to air in Miami and Denver, which said Rubio is "plain bad for our community," citing his opposition to increasing the minimum wage.
The ad reflects the threat Rubio presents to Democrats should he win the nomination. Although his record on immigration is mixed, his Hispanic heritage could be a draw for the growing Latino voter base, who would be making history by elevating Rubio to the White House.
Rubio will return to Washington today for a Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran, giving him a platform to highlight his hawkish side. Then he begins the hyper focus of raising money and visiting early primary states, including fundraisers Thursday in New York and Boston, and campaign events in New Hampshire on Friday. He will soon travel to Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada.
Rubio closed his speech by talking about his family and the time he would be away during months of campaigning.
"But I have chosen this course because this election is about them," he said. "Theirs is the most important generation in American history. If we can capture the promise of this new century, they will be the freest and most prosperous Americans ever. But if we fail, they will be the first generation of Americans to inherit a country worse off than the one left for their parents."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]