If Mr. Rubio can finesse the immigration issue, however, the sky may be the limit. At El Atlacatl Restaurant, a popular Little Havana hangout for Latin Americans, Lucia Zamudio’s eyes light up at the mention of his name.
“I wanted to vote for him,” insists the Colombian-born Ms. Zamudio, 50, who is awaiting U.S. citizenship. “He’s young. He knows about the problems of the Latino people. And he has a good family.”
When he gets to the Senate in January, Mr. Rubio will be under intense pressure from those who brought him to remember them. One is former Club for Growth chairman Pat Toomey, who became Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator-elect on Tuesday.
Another is hard-right Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, an early Rubio backer, whose Senate Conservatives Fund contributed almost $600,000 to Mr. Rubio’s campaign. Mr. De Mint also transferred another $250,000 from his personal war chest to help the upstart candidate beat the GOP establishment choice, Mr. Crist.
“Tea Party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country – not be co-opted by the club,” Mr. DeMint wrote this week in an open letter to his new GOP colleagues in Congress. “So put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today.”
However, University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith suggests Mr. Rubio’s hero status with conservatives outside the state belies what he sees as his pragmatism.
“Within Florida, he moved toward the centre, realizing that Charlie Crist was losing moderate Republicans by moving too far to the left,” Prof. Smith explains. “But nationally, Rubio ran a more conservative, principled campaign to attract out-of-state financial backers.”
Exit polls conducted by Edison Research showed that fully 90 per cent of Floridians who strongly support the Tea Party voted for Mr. Rubio. But he also captured a third of the vote of self-described moderates. His victory speech, which never mentioned the Tea Party, was an ode to the American dream, not a declaration of war.
Just what kind of Republican Mr. Rubio turns out to be when he gets to Congress remains very much an unanswered question.
For now, though, he really is the Republican Obama, an enigmatic figure onto whom his supporters project their hopes and desires. It is possible he will disappoint some of them, as hard as that may be for the regulars at Versailles to fathom.