Marco Rubio and his friend David Rivera crammed into a packed community center in Little Havana one night in the summer of 1996.
Rubio and Rivera, volunteers in the Bob Dole presidential campaign, were there to meet with a few dozen political leaders in the Cuban-American neighborhood in Miami. The topic, Bill Clinton's rise in the polls, was a downer. It looked like Dole was on the verge of being cast a loser in the race by August.
The night's speakers, one after another, stuck to that despondent theme.
The then 24-year-old University of Miami law student wowed the crowd with a raucous speech. Rivera says Rubio's themes were individual liberty, the wonders of capitalism and, most importantly, the concept that the current generation should strive to leave their children better off than the previous generation.
Rivera left the meeting that night impressed with Rubio, who he met in 1993. He wasn't surprised.
“He has always been very enthusiastic about politics and public service,” says Rivera, now a state representative for District 112, which stretches from Miami west into Collier County. “From the moment I met him, I knew he was going places in the political world.”
The next place Rubio hopes to go is the U.S Senate.
To get there, Rubio, who served in the Florida House from 2000-2008, first needs to defeat Gov. Charlie Crist in what has become a nationally watched Republican Party primary race. The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 24.
If Rubio beats Crist, he would be the probable favorite in a statewide race for the office against the likely Democratic nominee, Kendrick Meek, a U.S. Congressman from Miami. Rubio, now 38, announced his candidacy May 5, 2009 in a YouTube video.
The campaign has since become a tale of two stories.
First, Rubio was a galactic underdog, a fringe candidate with little campaign money running against a popular governor. Indeed, in the summer of 2009, three separate polls had Crist walloping Rubio by more than 30 points.
But to say that Rubio has rebounded is a galactic understatement.
His denouncement of President Barack Obama's policies has resonated, both in Florida and nationwide. He has picked up endorsements and support from the likes of onetime presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leader in national conservative politics. He also graced the cover of National Review Sept. 7 under this headline: Yes, He Can: Florida Conservative Marco Rubio's Play for the GOP Future.
Of course, he has had some help from Crist. There was the man hug, the now infamous moment Feb. 10, 2009 when Crist warmly embraced Obama during a rally in Fort Myers to support the president's $787 billion stimulus package. The incident has forced Crist to spend campaign time defending himself as a real conservative.
Rubio has seized the momentum. He's raised nearly $2 million in campaign contributions in the last six months. And now some polls project Rubio will beat Crist by a stunning 34 percentage points.
“I think the people in charge of the federal government right now have overreached and are governing on a misguided mandate,” Rubio told the Review in an interview in Naples between campaign stops recently. “This agenda has to be stood up to and I believe I'm the best person to do that.”
Football and politics
Rubio's political rise can be traced to two spots: A porch in Las Vegas and a garden in West Miami.
The porch is where an eight-year-old Rubio regularly watched his grandfather puff on one of the three Cuban cigars he smoked a day. The elder Rubio regaled his grandson in Spanish and English with Cuban baseball stories, but he especially championed the day's politically conservative leader: President Ronald Reagan.
Those chats are embedded in the message Rubio delivers on the campaign trail. The theme of leaving the next generation better off than the one before was a grandfather staple that a first-generation American born to Cuban parents can especially appreciate.
“We are the heirs of one or two generations of unfulfilled dreams,” Rubio says of his heritage. “They made their children's future the cause of their lives.”
Rubio's grandfather was born to sharecroppers in Cuba in 1899. When he was four he was confined to a wheelchair after he came down with polio.
The illness had one advantage: The young boy was sent to school while everyone else his age worked the fields. He learned how to read and write. He even learned Morse code.
Marco Rubio's family, including his grandfather, left Cuba in 1958, just before the Fidel Castro-led revolution. Rubio was born in 1971 in Miami. The family moved to Las Vegas when he was eight.
The Rubios stayed out West for about five years. Rubio's dad worked as a bartender at one hotel, while his mom worked as a housekeeper at another one. Double shifts were the norm, says Rubio.
Rubio's grandfather died in 1984 and soon after the family returned to South Florida.
While growing up, Rubio could always talk and debate his way out of trouble, which is why some in his family thought he'd become a lawyer. But Rubio's real passion was passion football.
“I wanted to play in the NFL,” says Rubio, “and if I couldn't do that, I wanted to coach in the NFL.”
So after graduating South Miami Senior High School, Rubio, a cornerback, accepted a scholarship and played football at Tarkio College in Northwest Missouri for one year. He later transferred to the University of Florida, where he didn't play football, but he gradated in 1993.
Law school in Miami was next and so to was an introduction to politics.
That's where a garden in West Miami comes into play. It was there, in January 1998, when Rubio met Rebeca Sosa while she was planting flowers in her front yard. Rubio was seeking votes for his first campaign, to serve on the West Miami City Commission. Sosa, it turned out, was the Mayor of West Miami.
“I was so impressed with him right away,” says Sosa, now a Miami-Dade county commissioner. “He really understood all the issues.”
With Sosa as an ally, Rubio canvassed the entire neighborhood door-to-door. He needed about 800 votes to win his district.
“You could judge pretty quickly if you were going to get their vote if they invited you in for coffee,” Rubio recalls. “I drank a lot of Cuban coffee back then.”
The romanticism of an old-fashioned door-to-door political campaign soon gave way to the practicality of hardcore Florida politics.
Rubio won a special election for Florida's 111th District in January 2000. He then navigated the political minefields of the state House and befriended several powerful officials, including onetime speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City. He rose to the position of majority whip and majority leader.
Those relationships were vital when Rubio needed to garner support for his own effort to become speaker. He won that coveted gavel in 2006.
Along the way, Rubio cultivated a friendship with one of the most powerful conservative voices and allies in recent Floridian history: Jeb Bush.
For a time in 2009, Bush was the one many thought would run for the U.S. Senate. Rubio says he wouldn't have run for the office if his mentor and friend had entered the race.
Bush and Rubio, for the short time their positions intertwined with each other, mostly in 2006, were a formidable team. In a theatrical move on the House floor in 2005, Bush presented Rubio an ancient Chinese sword to symbolize the need to stay true to conservative values.
Rubio also brought his own theatrics to the House.
For instance, after his first speech as Speaker, Rubio asked his fellow members to unwrap a gift he left for them under their desks. The gift was a book titled 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future.
The pages, however, were blank. Rubio, in an oft-told story, says he wanted the members to fill the pages with the ideas that would shape the state's future.
The concept worked. It became Rubio's first foray into the national political scene. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, for instance, embraced the concept and brought it to Georgia.
A father of two girls and two boys, all under 10, Rubio returned to practicing law in Miami after leaving elected office in 2008. His wife, Jeanette Rubio, is a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader.
His time on the political sidelines didn't last long.
Rubio began thinking about running for U.S. Senate in December 2008, soon after Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Orlando, said he wouldn't seek a second term in 2010.
Rivera, Rubio's longtime friend from West Miami, was one of the insiders who encouraged Rubio to run — despite the long odds. Rivera, who ran an aborted campaign for state Senate in 2008, says he based his advice on two factors.
For one, Rivera says he knew Rubio had the skills and ability to win.
Second, Rivera says in his statewide travels for fundraising, be it Bradenton or St. Augustine, he saw firsthand how vulnerable Crist had become.
“Everywhere I went I saw this palatable disgust with Gov. Crist's leadership,” says Rivera. “In many cases, there was anger and resentment.”
Rubio hemmed and hawed for three or four months about the decision. He spoke to people like Bush and Sosa. He talked it over dozens of times with his wife, his parents and other close relatives.
Rubio ultimately made his decision, he says now, because he felt like time would pass him by if he didn't make his move now.
“My decision is that it would be wrong not to run,” Rubio told the Republican Men's Club of Collier County March 12. “If we do nothing about the path this country is on, we are on the verge of becoming the first American generation to leave their children worse off than they were before.”