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.”
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.
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.