Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the fast-rising 'American son'

2:24 PM, Jun 18, 2012   |    comments
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U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

WEST MIAMI, Florida -- It's not yet 7 a.m. when Marco Rubio pads out the front door and down the driveway in workout shorts and a T-shirt, looking for the Saturday morning newspapers. He's already made coffee and exercised, taking advantage of the quiet before the kids wake up, tumble down the stairs and take over.

Florida's junior senator - 41 years old, the fastest-rising Hispanic political star in American politics and a contender to be Mitt Romney's running mate - is a man in a hurry.

His memoirs, titled An American Son, are being published Tuesday (Sentinel, $26.95). Since winning a Senate seat two years ago in a Tea Party-fueled upset, he has made official trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere, not to mention a visit to Guantanamo Bay that included his first steps on his family's native island of Cuba. President Obama on Friday essentially adopted Rubio's policy compromise to allow young people brought illegally to the United States as children to gain legal status, putting him smack in the center of one of the year's most contentious issues.

Rubio bats away speculation about whether Romney will choose him as the GOP vice presidential nominee this summer - "Look, it's flattering; it's also fleeting" - and says he hasn't thought about whether he might run for president down the road, though he doesn't dismiss the idea.

"I'm going to do the best job I can as a senator," he said in an interview in his family's compact, immaculately tidy home. "And if I do a good job at it, I'll probably have other opportunities. I don't know what those are today."

It is a curiosity of American politics that, while Latino voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, the highest-ranking Latino officeholders are just as likely to be Republican. Both Hispanic governors now in office, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, are Republicans. In the Senate, the only other Hispanic is Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

For some in the GOP, the intriguing question is whether nominating Rubio or another Latino as a national candidate could provide a shortcut to fixing the party's strained relationship with the country's fastest growing minority group. Rubio also brings other political credentials, including hero status with many conservative Christians and Tea Party supporters, a proven ability to raise big money and residency in the nation's quintessential swing state.

A Quinnipiac Poll last month showed his inclusion on the ticket widened Romney's narrow lead in Florida. In a straw poll at the CPAC convention in Chicago this month, Rubio was the vice-presidential preference of 30% of the conservative activists attending, more than double the second-place finisher, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

"As the country changes demographically, he's an appealing candidate who has the ability to connect with audiences defining conservatism," says Steve Schmidt, a top strategist for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign. "The other aspect is that Marco Rubio was born in the 1970s. When he inevitably runs for national office, he will represent a generational change."

At this moment, though, Rubio is focused not on discussing tomorrow's prospects but on fulfilling yesterday's promise. That is, his promise to make fried-egg sandwiches for the six kids - four of his own plus two nephews who slept over last night - for breakfast this morning, giving wife Jeanette a break.

Four-year-old Dominick is the first to appear at the top of the stairs, dressed in Batman pajamas and dragging a bedraggled baby blanket. Then 7-year-old Anthony and the cousins race downstairs to play a Star Wars video game while Rubio gets busy in the kitchen. Daughters Amanda, 12, and Daniella, who turns 10 today, follow later.

Rubio stirs strawberry flavoring and chocolate syrup into milk cups festooned with pictures of LeBron James and the Miami Heat as the video game screams, "Danger! Danger!"

Unpacking baggage?

Rubio says he wrote the 307-page book for any number of reasons. People were interested in his story, and he wanted to tell it himself. (Another book, The Rise of MarcoRubio by Manuel Roig-Franzia, also is being published Tuesday.) He'd like to earn enough money to pay off his last student loan, from law school, which now costs him $700 a month. He wanted to pay tribute to his parents and grandparents.

"My parents were just as smart as I am, just as hard working if not harder; I think my father and grandfather were probably better men, yet I've been able to accomplish things professionally that they were not able to," he says. Why? "God has blessed me with the opportunity to be an American son."

One more possible reason for the book: to explain financial and personal controversies that, unaddressed, could dog him. He's accumulated some baggage since graduating from the University of Miami Law School in 1996 and launching the fastest rise in American politics since, well, Barack Obama.

Always interested in politics, Rubio was elected to the city commission of the tiny working-class enclave of West Miami (population 5,965) in 1998, then won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives two years later . He became speaker of the House in 2006, 35 years old and the first Cuban-American to hold the post.

In 2009, he declared a long-shot bid for an open U.S. Senate seat, taking on Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Despite his public denials at the time, Rubio reveals in the book how close he came to dropping out of the race when Crist's fundraising advantage and institutional backing seemed insurmountable.

When he was looking for a way out, Jeanette Rubio weighed in. Rubio's striking wife is more likely to share her husband's fascination with football than politics - she and her sister are former Miami Dolphins cheerleaders - but she was the one who pushed back hardest when he was ready to quit. "Nothing important in life is easy," she scolded him then.

Eventually, it was Crist who abandoned the Republican primary to run as an independent. Rubio ended up beating him in November by almost 20 percentage points. He would become the Senate's second-youngest member (Utah's Mike Lee is seven days younger) and the most closely watched freshman in the class of 2010.

In the book, Rubio writes in some detail about financial disputes during his tenure in the state Legislature that he says reflected sloppiness, not dishonesty. Thousands of dollars in personal expenses appeared on an American Express card issued by the state GOP, but he says he reimbursed the credit-card company for all of them. A house he co-owned at the state capital in Tallahassee went into foreclosure, the result of miscommunication and a situation he quickly rectified, he says.

More explosive stories were published last fall by the St. Petersburg Times and The Washington Post that traced how Rubio left the impression - and stated flatly in the biography on his Senate website - that his parents had fled Cuba in 1959, after Fidel Castro rose to power. Immigration records show that Mario and Oriales Rubio immigrated in 1956.

The Post story said Rubio's account of a family fleeing Castro "embellishes the facts" on an issue that goes to "the core" of his political identity.

Rubio's normal speech pattern is fast, but his voice accelerates in speed and intensity when he responds to that.

He says he wasn't aware of precisely when his parents moved to the United States until he began research for his book and the controversy erupted on the newspapers' front pages. "It was my fault," he says. "I should have known." But he argues that whether his parents left Cuba during the Batista dictatorship or the Castro-led revolution that overthrew it is irrelevant.

"Exile is not a time frame," he says. "Exile is an experience. It's a sentiment. For my parents, it's the very real pain of being permanently separated from the nation of their birth.... They can never go back and show us the place where my father grew up, or where his parents are buried, or where he used to play baseball, or where they met or where they got married. They can never show us any of those things, and that pain is very real."

He is, he says, the product of a community of exiles.

Rubio calls his family's story - and the opportunities that were opened to the children of a hotel bartender and a maid - the epitome of the American dream. The political question is whether his life story would resonate not only with Cuban-Americans, who make up just 4% of Hispanics in the United States, but also with Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

Among all Latinos, he says, "this burning desire to leave their kids better off than themselves, this almost overwhelming focus on allowing not just for yourself to accomplish things but for your kids to do things that you weren't able to do - I think is very commonplace."

Out of sync on policy

On some key policies, Rubio is at odds with most Latinos. He speaks favorably of a tough Arizona immigration law. He defends a Florida purge of voter rolls that has disproportionately affected Hispanics. And for months he has been drafting a compromise version of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children if they serve honorably in the military or go to college.

Obama's action tracks the senator's proposal, though by executive action rather than legislation. Rubio calls the president's announcement "welcome news," albeit a short-term fix and one he says ignores the Constitution in bypassing Congress. He is reconsidering whether to submit the legislation at this point, spokesman Alex Conant says, says, because Obama has complicated the politics and reduced the urgency.

In any case, Rubio says, Republicans need to recognize how immigration issues distinctly affect Hispanics.

"It's not just something you read about in the newspaper," he says. "These are humans that you know. These are stories that you know firsthand." He cautions: "When they hear voices in American politics describe people in those circumstances as a scourge, as something less than human, it bothers people instinctively."

GOP efforts to cultivate Hispanic support will take time, even a generation, but he says the idea of free markets and the promise of upward mobility create an opening.

Arturo Carmona, executive director of an Hispanic online advocacy group called Presente, dismisses the idea that Rubio can appeal to non-Cuban Latinos. "The more that Latinos learn about Rubio, the more negative the opinion becomes of the senator," he says.

Some top Republicans say Rubio is too green after just two years in the Senate to be on the national ticket this time. "There's a hangover on Palin," says Schmidt, who played a central role in McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. Questions about her readiness to be president then "means there has to be a consensus on qualifications" this time.

For now, Rubio and his kids climb into the cab of his pickup to head to Anthony's flag-football game at the Kendall Boys and Girls Club. (His Raiders would lose 30-0 to the rival Steelers.) Afterward, Rubio stops by a favorite Cuban bakery for lunch.

He's greeted with a hug by Orlando Hernandez, a gravel-voiced, 71-year-old Cuban émigré. "I'm one of his biggest fans," Hernandez says of Rubio. What about Rubio as a vice presidential nominee? "Personally," he replies, "I'd like to see him run for the top."

Marco Antonio Rubio

Born: May 28, 1971, in Miami.

Education: Attended Tarkio College and Santa Fe Community College; graduated from the University of Florida. University of Miami Law School, J.D.

Family: Married to the former Jeanette Dousdebes. Children: Amanda, 12; Daniella, 10; Anthony, 7; Dominick, 4.

Political resume: Member, West Miami City Commission, 1998-2000. Member, Florida House of Representatives, 2000-08. Florida House speaker, 2006-08. U.S. senator, 2011-current.

**National favorability ratings:26% favorable, 18% unfavorable, 41% never heard of, 15% no opinion

Personal passions: Football (a Miami Dolphins fan); rap music and hip hop.

**NOTE: USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,012 adults May 10-13. Margin of error +/-4 percentage points.

Source: USA TODAY research

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