Marco Rubio, from exile to tea party hero

By Annie Gowen
Thursday, November 4, 2010; A24

IN MIAMI When Florida senator-elect and GOP rising star Marco Rubio took the stage at his victory party Tuesday night, he seemed at once joyful and subdued. He spoke reverentially about America's potential for opportunity, and he grew emotional when he turned to the sacrifices made by his immigrant father, Mario, who died two months ago.

"He was fortunate enough to make it here in America, but he was never able to capture his own dream," Rubio, 39, told a crowd of supporters here, explaining how the elder Rubio - who worked as a banquet bartender until he was 78 - made it his mission to see that his children would succeed.

Rubio has told and retold his family story during his months on the campaign trail. He has described how growing up in a community of Cuban exiles in West Miami shaped his worldview.

"No matter where I go or what title I may achieve, I will always be the son of exiles," he said Tuesday.

Rubio's inspirational story - rising from humble working-class beginnings to become the youngest-ever and first Hispanic speaker of the Florida House - helped endear him to a broad spectrum of Republicans as well as to many in the tea party movement. Earlier this year, the New Republic dubbed him "the Republican Obama."

"He understands the plight of the common man a lot better than most because of his background," said Jason Hoyt, the director of the Central Florida Tea Party Council, who embraced Rubio early. "That really resonates with tea party folks."

On the hustings, Rubio stuck to sweeping conservative themes with mainstream appeal - lower taxes, free enterprise, the fight against terrorism overseas.

"Clearly he got momentum from the tea party movement, but he is not a typical tea party candidate," said Matthew T. Corrigan, a political science professor from the University of North Florida. "He's been in the state legislature and is part of the political establishment."

He also got a boost from the Bush dynasty - still a power center in Florida politics - when former governor Jeb Bush endorsed him.

Rubio was at least 30 points down in the polls when he declared his candidacy for the seat vacated by Republican Mel Martinez in May 2009. At that time, it was widely assumed that the Republican candidate would be the state's moderate governor, Charlie Crist.

But the country's mood shifted, and by April, Crist had calculated that he could not beat Rubio in a Republican primary. Crist opted to stay in the mix, running without party affiliation, setting up a three-way race between himself, Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick B. Meek.

In the end, Rubio won with a comfortable margin. Republican leaders predicted he would be a standout in the class of 13 new senators. Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Rubio's victory was a milestone.

"Marco represents the new generation, newly arrived," Steele said. "We're very excited about what he brings to the table, not only his Hispanic heritage but his political acumen and ability to reach out to people and relate to them. That's the kind of candidates we've been longing for."

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