Mr. Rubio, a father of four young children who is married to a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, has been uttering nearly the exact same words since he was chosen as Florida’s first Cuban-American Speaker in 2005. But few outside the state capital in Tallahassee, or his political base in West Miami, had heard him speak until this year.
“We were part of what I call the ‘6-per-cent club,’” Mr. Baxley, an Ocala, Fla., funeral director, jokes in reference to Mr. Rubio’s name recognition among Floridians in early 2009.
Then, Mr. Crist’s coronation as the GOP’s Senate candidate was considered a near certainty. The aura of inevitability soon faded after Mr. Crist fatefully sealed his support of Mr. Obama’s $816-billion (U.S.) stimulus package by hugging the President at a joint rally in Fort Myers.
Soon after what became known as The Hug, the Washington-based Club for Growth endorsed Mr. Crist’s boy-faced challenger, immediately enhancing his profile – and fund-raising ability – with conservatives across the country. After that, Tea Partiers stuck to Mr. Rubio like burrs.
In April, staring a humiliating primary defeat in the face, Mr. Crist quit the GOP to run as an independent in what became a three-way race with Democrat Kendrick Meek. By mid-summer, Mr. Rubio had pulled away from the pack and coasted to victory.
While Mr. Rubio quickly became known as the “first Tea Party candidate,” no person or group was as instrumental in his ascent as Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor mentored him from the moment he was first elected to the state legislature in 2000 at 29. When Mr. Rubio was chosen as Speaker, Mr. Bush said: “I can’t think back to a time when I was prouder to be Republican.”
Indeed, Mr. Rubio might be described as Mr. Bush’s personal great right hope. Married to a Mexican-American, Mr. Bush has long made it his political mission to consummate what he see as a natural – and essential, given demographics – partnership between Hispanics and the party.
For most of the past year, that looked like wishful thinking. The adoption by Republican-led Arizona of a controversial law requiring state and local police to apprehend people they suspect of being in the country illegally has deepened Hispanics’ distrust of the GOP.
Though Democrats captured 64 per cent of the Latino vote nationwide on Tuesday, Republicans Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez did win governorships in Nevada and New Mexico, respectively. And Latinos carrying the GOP banner won House races in Washington, Idaho, Texas and Florida.
None of them embody the GOP’s hopes for a breakthrough with Hispanic voters, however, as much as Mr. Rubio. As eloquent in Spanish as he is in English, Republicans see him as their Cicero, with the credibility and personal magnetism to sell their conservative message to Latinos.
“We Republicans realize that much of the preservation of American values lies with Hispanics,” Mr. Baxley offers. “They’re the ones who still believe in faith, family, freedom and opportunity.”
The crowd at Versailles is already in the bag. Cuban-Americans are still among the staunchest GOP supporters in the country.
“He is one of us. His father was a political refugee,” Gonzalo Lopez, 74, says of Mr. Rubio. “He knows the Cuban people have been struggling for freedom for almost 52 years. He is fighting for equal opportunity for everybody – black, white, yellow. That’s why America is so great.”
Mr. Sixto, 59, sees in Mr. Rubio a true conservative who could excite the GOP base in 2012: “He’s a self-made individual. He just went after the dream and I admire that about him.”
Still, Mr. Rubio’s appeal among non-Cuban Hispanics is less apparent. He captured 55 per cent of the Latino vote in Florida on Tuesday, barely five percentage points more than Republican Rick Scott, who won the state’s gubernatorial race.
Making lasting inroads with Hispanics nationally will be difficult until Republicans shake off their anti-immigration image. Mr. Rubio’s support for the Arizona law, and his opposition to a Democratic proposal to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants who graduate from college, have not earned him many Hispanic fans outside Florida.