Marco Rubio's path to becoming a presidential candidate, which he formally announced on Monday, began on the road to Rebeca Sosa's house.
Gardening outside her South Florida home in 1997, Sosa saw his shadow over her shoulder she heard his voice. The 26-year-old Rubio was seeking her blessing of his West Miami city commission campaign.
“I looked at this young man and asked him, ‘Why do you want to run?’” Sosa, a Miami-Dade County commissioner who was West Miami mayor at the time, recalled in an interview last week. “The way he answered the question, I left everything in the garden and we went inside to have coffee and talk more. He spoke from the heart, about his appreciation for this country and the influence his grandfather had on him, and it made an impression on me right from the start. I was walking with him and knocking on doors the next day.”
With Sosa’s help, about 750 voters cast their ballot for Rubio and he was elected to the local board. On Monday, just 15 years removed from that job fixing potholes and paying for police officers and about 10 miles from Sosa's home, Marco Antonio Rubio, the son of a hotel maid and a bartender, announced his bid to become the first Cuban-American to be elected president of the United States.
"After months of deliberation and prayer about the future of our country, I have come here tonight to make an announcement on how I believe I can best serve her," Rubio told about 1,000 people gathered at Miami's Freedom Tower, a site used by the federal government to document thousands of Cuban refugees in the 1960s.
Rubio highlighted his own biography during his announcement speech.
"My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream," Rubio said. "But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible: Hard working families living paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected expense away from disaster."
Like Democrat Hillary Clinton had one day earlier, Rubio sounded populist themes during his campaign roll-out.
"For almost all of human history, power and wealth belonged only to a select few. Most people who have ever lived were trapped by the circumstances of their birth, destined to live the life their parents had. But America is different. Here, we are the children and grandchildren of people who refused to accept this."
Rubio enters the race with high expectations, and perhaps even higher hurdles.
His political skills—delivering powerful speeches, personally engaging activists and voters with charm and quick wit, having a firm grip on the major issues of the day—are on par with any Republican in or expected to get into the field. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer maintains Rubio is the most likely to win the nomination, saying Rubio's “fresh, young, dynamic persona is a powerful counterpoint to Clinton fatigue.”
“He can bring grown men to tears with emotion,” Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, told reporters last week. “I don't know that we have any other candidate that is as good.”
Those qualities helped rocket Rubio to the top of some of the very first polls of Republican presidential contenders. He fell back to earth after his role in 2013 as co-author of the Senate immigration bill, not a favorite of the GOP's conservative base. Since then, he's been barely registering in the polls. But Rubio has spent the past two years reaching out to conservative activists, and that work may pay off soon: a Bloomberg Politics national poll shows that 63 percent of Republicans said they "seriously" or "might" consider his candidacy, giving him one of the better ratings among potential 2016 contenders.
Other problems facing Rubio: Without help from a key billionaire or two, financial support for his campaign remains questionable. And while he hails from Florida, a key state in presidential politics, he'll get little help from other Republican officials as long as he’s overshadowed by his neighbor and friend, former Governor Jeb Bush. Bush, an early fan (he phoned Rubio to congratulate him after winning that first election on April 14, 1998), is now mulling his own presidential bid.
Bush, in fact, "knighted" Rubio as his heir in 2006 when he passed along the golden sword of "a mystical warrior" named Chang, who Bush said could help keep him focused on his conservative principles.
The sword hung above Rubio's desk in the state House. "Chang is reserved for very special causes, like property tax reform," Rubio told The Palm Beach Post in 2007. "We haven't had to use the sword yet, but it's there in case of emergency."
Rubio, 43, has never lost an election, and he’s shown that he’s at his best when the odds are the longest. He was at just 6 percent in a U.S. Senate primary poll in 2009, before roaring back, defeating a sitting governor, and almost immediately being discussed as a contender for the nation’s highest office.
Rubio’s rapid rise should be astonishing; In his first race for the state House in 1999, he won his Republican primary runoff by just 64 votes. He nearly abandoned the U.S. Senate primary race to run instead for state attorney general.
Those who know him, however, have been anticipating the ascent for years. “I always used to tease him about when he was going to open up his campaign in Iowa,” said Susan Bucher, a liberal Democrat from West Palm Beach who was in the same freshmen state House class and was a fellow Hispanic caucus member. “He was very eloquent, had a lot of passion, and he was not shy about telling people that he had a goal to run for president some day.”
Rubio hasn’t announced any hires yet in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary. But he’s already staffed up in New Hampshire, where Jim Merrill, a respected operative who was a senior adviser for Mitt Romney in 2012, is helping. Opening doors for him in South Carolina is Warren Tompkins, who was a strategist in the state for the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush campaigns and was recently named head of the super-PAC supporting Rubio, Conservative Solutions. Another South Carolinian, Terry Sullivan, has worked as Rubio's deputy chief of staff in the Senate, controlled his leadership PAC, and is expected to take over as campaign manager.
“Marco has the vision,” Tompkins said in a statement last week. “Few have laid out in as much detail where they’d like to lead this country, and we’re going to spend the next two years ensuring that the resources are there and used to effectively share that vision with voters.”
That vision is a set of policy proposals Rubio has spent the past several years fine tuning from his perch in the Senate. While few of those plans have been turned into legislation, Rubio has called for a cutting edge plan to fight poverty with wage subsidies, ease the burden of student-loan debt, and back a higher retirement age for Social Security. He’ll return to Washington on Wednesday, Tax Day, to continue promoting a plan to reduce marginal tax rates, let businesses write off investments immediately and create a $2,500 tax credit for children.
Rubio has long considered himself above the fray of the disputes between interest groups that often dominate capitals across the country. In 2007, when he became the youngest state House speaker in Florida history—and first minority—he published a book, “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future,” a 169-page road map for his two-year term in the powerful position. The book earned him comparisons to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who praised the effort in a blurb on the book’s jacket.
About one-fourth of those ideas were turned into laws, but the “boldest reform,” as Rubio has described it, was an overhaul of property taxes that he failed to convince Republicans in the Senate to approve. Similarly, Rubio’s ambitious immigration bill in the U.S. Senate failed to get traction from his fellow Republicans in control of the other half of Congress.
But while Rubio sought the political middle on immigration reform, positioned himself as a populist hero on property tax reform, and sought to make Florida a leader in the alternative fuel market, he has a long streak of conservatism.
He supported state intervention to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a comatose Florida woman who ignited a national debate about end-of-life issues, backed attempts to dilute the voter-approved reduction of class sizes and favored Bush's school voucher programs.
Known as fair and approachable, Rubio can win admirers with his charm and quick wit.
“He was and is a decent, good-hearted person with good values, and a strong family man, said Alan Becker, a founding shareholder of Becker and Poliakoff, a Miami-based law firm that hired Rubio to lobby local government while he served in the legislature. “He’s ambition, but in a good way. He wanted to accomplish things. I always appreciated his ambition and positivity and basic decency.”
Bucher, Rubio's Democratic legislative colleague, said he often put partisanship aside to pass good policy. Now the Palm Beach County elections supervisor, Bucher said Rubio sometimes brought her ideas to Republicans, who would pass them into law without knowing the proposals came from her. “We had a pretty good relationship,” she said. “He wanted to pass good policy.”
Rubio was born in Miami in 1971, the third of his Cuban immigrant parents' four children. His late father, Mario, worked most of his life as a bartender, his mother, Oriales, as a cashier and hotel maid. The family moved to Las Vegas in 1979, where they lived briefly before returning to Florida.
Rubio attended Tarkio College in Missouri to play football, but returned to Florida as the school was mired in financial issues. He used loans to finance his education at community college, the University of Florida and the University of Miami law school, graduating with more than $100,000 in student loan debt. He paid off those obligations with proceeds from his 2012 memoir, "An American Son,"
Rubio dates his first political memory to 1980, when he followed the presidential campaign on television as President Carter survived a primary challenge from fellow Democrat Sen. Ted Kennedy, only to be thumped in the general election by Republican Ronald Reagan.
Rubio worked as an intern for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in 1991. He was a campaign volunteer for U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart in 1992, coordinated U.S. Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign in Miami-Dade in 1996, before putting together his own race together for the West Miami commission with a platform of enhancing community policing and expanding senior programs.
He won one of two seats by beating an incumbent and finishing second among four candidates. The same year, he married Jeanette Dousdebes, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader. The two have four children.
“The word proud is not enough,” Sosa said. “When you start at the bottom, the local one-to-one, and know the local needs of a small city, you never forget the impact on all the little families. He is ready, ready, ready."
—John McCormick, Erik Wasson, and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this story.