Cuban-Americans have been gathering at Versailles Restaurant, a Little Havana landmark, to commiserate about communism since the year Marco Rubio was born.
But in the wake of Mr. Rubio’s breakout victory in Florida’s Senate race, there is suddenly less talk about regime change in their former country and a lot more about engineering a political revolution in Washington.
Many here see the Republican wave that swept the 39-year-old son of Cuban exiles into office on Tuesday as a precursor to a much bigger tide. Talk of Mr. Rubio soon emerging as a presidential running mate – or more – is as irresistible at Versailles as the Cuban croquetas the restaurant serves up.
“That would be a great ticket, a tremendous ticket,” muses Julio Sixto, a supporter of Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination in 2008, as he ponders the possibility of a Romney-Rubio partnership two years from now.
Or is that Rubio-Romney?
In an age when political stars are made in record time, and when Americans seem particularly willing to bet on new faces, that idea may not be as fanciful as it sounds. Barack Obama went from being unknown outside of Chicago to becoming the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in barely 30 months. Almost no one below the 49th parallel had heard of Sarah Palin before the 2008 Republican convention.
Still, political stardom can be fleeting. Until John McCain picked Ms. Palin, Florida Governor Charlie Crist was at the top of the pack of potential vice-presidential nominees. Now, Mr. Crist’s political career lies in tatters. On Tuesday, he went down in flames in the Senate election as Mr. Rubio captured nearly half of the popular vote.
“Charlie’s not about substance. He’s strictly about reading the wind,” says Dennis Baxley, who served in the state legislature when Mr. Rubio was Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and urged his friend to run against Mr. Crist. “Marco has core convictions. They rudder the ship.”
Those apparent convictions led Mr. Crist to label his opponent an “extreme right-wing candidate” throughout the campaign. But Mr. Rubio – an anti-abortion, pro-gun, small-government conservative – transcended that barb with his earnest optimism, stirring oratory and a compelling personal narrative that has led many pundits to call him the Republican Obama.
“No matter where I go or what title I may achieve, I will always be the son of exiles,” the U.S.-born Mr. Rubio, whose parents fled Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution, reminded supporters in his victory speech on Tuesday. “And we will always be heirs to two generations of unfulfilled dreams.”
Mr. Rubio’s father, who died two months ago, worked as a banquet bartender until he was 78. His mother cleaned hotel rooms and worked at K-Mart. After dabbling with a career in football – the sport remains to him what basketball is to Mr. Obama – Mr. Rubio put himself through university and law school. He racked up $165,000 in student loans in the process.
Indeed, his unsteady personal finances were red-flagged throughout the campaign. He acknowledged using the Florida GOP’s credit card for personal expenses when he was Speaker. And a house he co-owned almost went into foreclosure. But the revelations did not interrupt his momentum.
Growing up in a “community of exiles, of people who lost their country,” Mr. Rubio has made rescuing his own from encroaching statism the trademark of his politics.
He speaks endlessly of the United States as “simply the single greatest nation in all of human history,” a phrase that endears him to disciples of American exceptionalism, a sacred doctrine among U.S. conservatives. His call for a return to the country’s founding principles – it’s inferred that means small government and individual freedom – makes them gush.
“Before us lie two very different roads,” Mr. Rubio calmly told supporters on Tuesday. “One road is the road that Washington and both parties have placed us on … [The other]is a road that realizes that there is still one place on this planet where it doesn’t matter if your dad was a bartender and your mom was a maid.”