TAMPA — Among the rising stars who took the stage here at the GOP’s national convention this week, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida may have been the brightest of them all.
Rubio, a tea party favorite and national GOP luminary who first won election to the Senate in 2010, captivated the crowd at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday evening with a prime-time address in which he cited his parents’ journey from Cuba to the United States as proof that America is an exceptional country.
“The dreams he had when he was young became impossible to achieve,” Rubio told the crowd of his Cuban-born grandfather, with whom he said he watched his first GOP convention in 1980. “But there was no limit to how far I could go, because I was an American.”
With his speech, he was clearly being presented as a future of the party.
Rubio seized on President Obama’s 2008 campaign themes of hope and change, telling the crowd that “under Barack Obama, the only change is that hope has been hard to find.”
He argued that while Obama isn’t “a bad person,” he has been “a bad president” — one whose signature agenda items such as the national health-care law and the economic stimulus represent “ideas that people come to America to get away from.”
“No matter how you feel about President Obama, this election is about your future, not about his, and this election is not simply a choice between a Democrat and a Republican — it’s a choice about what kind of country we want America to be,” Rubio said.
The main thrust of Rubio’s speech, however, was the idea of the United States as an exceptional nation — a concept on which the Florida Republican has focused in stump speeches long before his national convention appearance.
Rubio, 41, served a total of eight years in the Florida legislature and, in 2007, became the first Cuban American speaker of the Florida state House.
He was first considered a long-shot in Florida’s 2010 open-seat Senate race but garnered national attention when the success of his tea-party-fueled bid led his primary rival, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, to leave the Republican Party and run as an independent. Rubio went on to best Crist and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) in the three-way race and has since become a national conservative star.
In the nearly two years since his Senate victory, Rubio has electrified the GOP base and, earlier this summer, was the top choice of many conservatives to serve as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
The telegenic freshman senator ultimately was passed over for the vice-presidential nod in favor of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). But Rubio is widely viewed as a future contender on the national stage, and his Thursday night introduction of Romney gave Rubio his largest platform yet, in much the same way that Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech catapulted the then-Senate hopeful to stardom.
Rubio’s parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba in the mid-1950s and were unable to return after Fidel Castro came to power. Rubio drew heavily on his family’s story in his address.
He noted that his father, who lost his own mother at age 9, worked as a bartender and that his mother — a former cashier, maid and Kmart employee — “was one of seven girls, whose parents often went to bed hungry so their children wouldn’t.”
“A few years ago, during a speech, I noticed a bartender behind a portable bar at the back of the ballroom,” Rubio said. “I remembered my father who had worked so long as a banquet bartender. . . . He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.”
He added, “We’re special because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, come true here.”
Rubio praised Romney at length in his convention address, casting the Republican presidential nominee’s family story as in league with his own.
Romney’s father, the late Michigan governor and onetime White House hopeful George Romney, was born in Mexico to parents who had been ordered by the Mormon church to flee the United States, where anti-polygamy laws were tightening at the time. George Romney was later brought back to the United States at age 5 as his family was forced to flee Mexican revolutionaries.
“It’s the story of a man who was born into an uncertain future in a foreign country,” Rubio said. “His family came to America to escape revolution. They struggled through poverty and the Great Depression. And yet he rose to be an admired businessman and public servant.
“And in November, his son, Mitt Romney, will be elected president of these United States,” Rubio added to boisterous cheers from the crowd.