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Marco Rubio Hits the Big Time

August 21, 2009

Rubio_coverBursting onto the national stage, the September issue of National Review will feature a cover story on Florida’s brightest young Republican star, Marco Rubio.

Facing an uphill primary battle with Governor Charlie Crist, Rubio has many obstacles in his path. However, he is optimistic about his chances, as National Review reports:

On paper, it looks like a mismatch between an unbeatable juggernaut and a doomed also-ran.

Yet Crist may be vulnerable: He warmly embraced President Obama’s stimulus spending and is one of the most liberal politicians in the Republican firmament. Rubio is among the brightest young stars on the right. Their contest could become the sleeper race of 2010.

Gracing the cover of the vaunted National Review is certainly a step in the right direction for Rubio, who may be able to leverage the national exposure to close the gap with Crist. If Rubio capitalizes correctly, this cover could lead to a needed boost in fund raising and name recognition.

After the break, read an excerpt from the National Review on Marco Rubio.

Yet Crist may be vulnerable: He warmly embraced President Obama’s stimulus spending and is one of the most liberal politicians in the Republican firmament. Rubio is among the brightest young stars on the right. Their contest could become the sleeper race of 2010.

That would spoil the well-laid plans of many in the GOP establishment. They want the Senate race in Florida to be over before it starts. In May, when Crist declared that he would forgo a second term as governor and aim for the seat of retiring senator Mel Martinez, the National Republican Senatorial Committee waited all of 14 minutes to endorse him. “I never thought I’d see the day when a conservative was the insurgent in a Republican primary,” says Rubio. Yet this is precisely what he has become: a heavy underdog who must learn to wage the political version of asymmetric warfare. A recent Mason–Dixon poll gave Crist a big lead over his rival, 51 percent to 23 percent.

The election remains a year away. For a primary, it’s late on the calendar: Aug. 24, 2010. That gives Rubio plenty of time to catch up. The details of the Mason–Dixon poll suggest that he’ll have a fighting chance. Among Republicans who are familiar with both candidates, Crist’s lead slips to statistical insignificance. It’s basically a dead heat. “I’m not a kamikaze,” says Rubio. “At this time next year, you’re going to be analyzing a very different race.” For that prediction to come true, conservatives in Florida and around the country will have to turn Rubio’s candidacy into a cause.

Marco Antonio Rubio was born in 1971, the son of Cuban exiles. His father worked late nights as a bartender. His mother was a hotel maid and a stock clerk at Kmart. They lived in Miami, moved to Las Vegas for a few years, and finally returned to Florida. “I gained an interest in politics and history from my uncle, who would read books and newspapers out loud to us,” says Rubio. As with many boys, sports were a priority. He played defensive back for his high-school football team. He says he has a recurring dream — a “nightmare,” he calls it — about a playoff game in 1987: “We should have won, but the referees called back a play, we missed a field goal, and our team lost.”

Rubio was talented enough to earn a scholarship to Tarkio College in Missouri. After a year, he left the gridiron and transferred to the University of Florida. Then came law school at the University of Miami. He remains an avid football fan and keeps fit playing in a competitive flag-football league. “Don’t disturb him during Miami Dolphins games,” warns a former colleague. “He doesn’t just watch them — he studies them.” Rubio’s devotion to the Dolphins is a family affair: His wife is a former team cheerleader. They have four children.

Early on, Rubio began to dabble in politics. He interned for Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and later coordinated the Dole-Kemp campaign in Miami–Dade County. “That was a tough assignment, but Marco was passionate,” says Al Cardenas, a former chair of the Florida GOP. “He had good people skills and helped the volunteers keep their spirits up. That’s when I first thought he might be going places.”

In 1998, at the age of 26, Rubio stepped into public life: He won a race to serve on the West Miami city commission. The next year, a spot opened in the state legislature. Rubio declared his candidacy in the special election and finished second in the Republican primary. This led to a runoff, and a lot of hustling: He walked neighborhoods, knocked on doors, and raised enough money to broadcast a few radio ads. In the end, he pulled off a minor upset, winning by 64 votes. It was the last time he faced a difficult race. The district was safe for Republicans, and voters sent him back to Tallahassee four times. Last year, term limits prevented him from running again.

As a young legislator, Rubio caught the eye of his elders. “He’s got all the tools,” says Jeb Bush, the former governor. “He’s charismatic and has the right principles.” Rubio compiled a conservative voting record and started to climb the GOP’s leadership ladder, eventually becoming speaker of the House. The capitol’s veterans occasionally mistook him for an aide: Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings once marched into his office, handed him a stack of papers, and asked him to make copies. At the time, Rubio was majority leader. “I did make the copies,” he says. For the most part, however, his youth was an asset. “I watched him grow up in the House,” says Lindsay Harrington, a former speaker pro tem. “He has an amazing ability to deliver a message — when he gives a speech, you can hear a pin drop.”

That’s what observers say about Rubio, over and over again: He’s a first-rate communicator. “He has a gift,” says Larry Cretul, the current House speaker. “People love listening to him.” He certainly has a flair for one-liners. Cap-and-trade legislation, he says, “will do nothing but make America one of the cleanest Third World economies.” He urges the GOP to avoid ethnic pandering, and dismisses concerns that opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor would hurt Republicans among Hispanics: “We don’t need more mariachi bands at the rallies.”

Thanks to YouTube, Rubio’s farewell address last year probably has been seen by more viewers than any other speech in the history of the Florida statehouse. That may sound like faint praise, and Rubio’s clip doesn’t compete with web sensations such as Susan Boyle or Obama Girl. But he’s gone about as viral as any state legislator can hope to go without setting his pants on fire. More recently, he has taken advantage of Twitter. He comments on everything from the state of his campaign to how long it takes his wife to get ready for a night out.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. PATRICK permalink
    September 30, 2009 1:08 am

    CRIST=RINO!! RUBIO=REAGAN!! NUFF SAID!!

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