Few people have played as big a role in Marco Rubio's rise in national politics as Jose "Pepe" Fanjul. With his brother Alfonso, Fanjul runs one of the biggest sugar companies in the country, with brands like Domino and Florida Crystals. He's a prominent Palm Beach socialite whose friends include the former king of Spain. In 2009, he marshalled both his money and his connections to help Rubio's long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate. Rubio later thanked the Fanjul family in his autobiography, "for believing in me early on when few did."

For his part, Rubio believes in sugar. As a Republican senator, he twice voted with Democrats to preserve government aid even as he railed against "corporate welfare" in other parts of the economy. He calls preserving U.S. sugar subsidies a matter of national security.

“Otherwise, Brazil will wipe out our agriculture—and it's not just sugar, it will be citrus and everything else—and then they control our food supply,” Rubio said at a forum last August. “We're at the mercy of a foreign country.”

Rubio made those comments at a summit organized by Freedom Partners, Charles and David Koch's libertarian-oriented donor network, and he'd just finished calling for an end to government supports for insurance and exports. His explanation for why sugar is different “left many in the audience of staunch free-marketeers scratching their heads,” according to the conservative National Review.

The sugar question highlights a recurring concern about Rubio on the right: that he's willing to betray conservative values when they conflict with the views of powerful donors.

Last year, Donald Trump called Rubio a “puppet” of Silicon Valley for his support for skilled-worker visas, a priority of top donor Larry Ellison's Oracle Corp. And at an event in Iowa, which holds the nation's first presidential caucus on Feb. 1, one minister questioned Rubio's commitment to traditional marriage after he won the endorsement of Paul Singer, a billionaire New York fund manager and gay-marriage advocate.

“Mr. Rubio has many talents, but one trait the presidential campaign has exposed is a tendency to hedge on his principles when he thinks it's politically beneficial,” the Wall Street Journal's editorial page wrote in November.

Rubio maintains he's independent of his donors. “When someone supports Marco, they are buying into his agenda, not the other way around,” said Alex Burgos, a campaign spokesman. Florida Crystals didn't respond to e-mails and phone messages seeking comment from the Fanjuls.

Recent polls have Rubio lagging behind Trump and Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as in national Republican surveys. The two front-runners are riding a wave of populist anger with Washington, while Rubio is battling Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie to consolidate the establishment wing of the party. The final Republican debate before the Iowa caucus takes place tonight in Des Moines.

Rubio and the Fanjuls have a common heritage in South Florida's populous Cuban community. The son of a bartender and a hotel maid who left the island nation in 1956, Rubio makes his rise from a humble background a prominent part of his stump speech. The Fanjuls' story is perhaps equally improbable.

Pepe and Alfonso were born into one of Cuba's great sugar fortunes, but the family lost it after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. They resettled in Florida, and set about staging a comeback. With imports from Cuba cut off, the U.S. government was spending freely to expand domestic sugar production. The brothers seized the opportunity, building a new empire in Everglades swampland and in the Dominican Republic.

In politics, the family hedged its bets. Pepe became a top Republican fundraiser, while Alfy, as Alfonso is known, grew close with President Bill Clinton—close enough that his name surfaced in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, having placed a phone call to the Oval Office while the president was alone with the White House intern. (Alfy had been calling about sugar policy.) The relationship seems to have endured. In January of last year, the Clinton family visited the Fanjuls' 7,000-acre resort in the Dominican Republic, and in April, Alfy donated to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

“One of the reasons why we get involved in American politics is because of what happened to us in Cuba,” Alfy told Vanity Fair in 2011. “We do not want what happened in Cuba to happen to us again.”

It's not surprising that the Fanjuls gravitated toward Rubio, said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist for U.S. Sugar, another major grower in the state. “Marco just had a natural affinity for them, socially, culturally and otherwise.” The relationship deepened, Stipanovich said, after a former colleague of Rubio's from the Florida House of Representatives, Gaston Cantens, joined Florida Crystals as a vice president. (Cantens didn't respond to phone calls and e-mails.)

During his time in the House, “Marco supported positions supported by the industry,” Stipanovich said, “but that would not distinguish him from the other 159 members of the Florida legislature.”

In 2008, Governor Charlie Crist announced a $1.8 billion plan to restore the Everglades by buying 187,000 acres from U.S. Sugar and eventually taking the land out of production. The Fanjuls, who had donated to Crist in the past, called it a sweetheart deal and filed a legal challenge. Eventually the plan had to be pared back due to a budget crunch.

The following year, when Crist announced he would seek an open U.S. Senate seat, the Fanjuls helped Rubio challenge him for the Republican nomination. In his book, An American Son, Rubio describes their support as critical. An early fundraiser at the family's Upper East Side apartment helped Rubio amass enough of a war chest to be taken seriously in the race, and Pepe, over dinner on his boat in the Hamptons, introduced Rubio to Rudy Giuliani, who later gave an endorsement. Rubio rode a wave of Tea Party fervor to pull ahead of Crist.

Rubio declared for president last year at a former Cuban refugee center in Miami. Moments after his speech, cameras captured Marco Rubio reaching for Pepe Fanjul, a distinguished-looking gentleman with a thick gray moustache, and giving him a hug.

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Two weeks later, Fanjul co-hosted a fundraiser for the candidate in Palm Beach, but so far he hasn't showed up on the list of Rubio's top donors. Those include Norman Braman, the owner of a chain of Florida car dealerships, who gave $5 million to a pro-Rubio super-PAC in the first half of last year; and the Oracle founder Ellison, who gave $3 million. More big donations may be revealed on Jan. 31, when the super-PAC is required to report donations made in the second half. New donors may include Singer, the hedge-fund manager, who didn't throw his weight behind Rubio until October.

The government props up the sugar industry through two main programs. It sets quotas on foreign imports, and offers loans that essentially guarantee U.S. growers a minimum price on their product. In recent years, U.S. sugar has sold for as much as twice the price on the world market. One study from Iowa State University, commissioned by a group of sugar users including candy makers, put the annual cost to consumers at $2.9 billion to $3.5 billion.

Not surprisingly, sugar has a strong voice in Washington. One analysis by the conservative Heritage Foundation, in 2014, found that the sugar industry produced 2 percent of U.S. crops but more than a third of crop industries' campaign contributions and 40 percent of the lobbying expenses.

Rubio doesn't have a lock on support from the industry. U.S. Sugar gave $505,000 last year to a super-PAC supporting the presidential run of Bush, the former Florida governor. Bush says he wants to phase out the sugar program over time.

Rubio argues that the sugar program, unlike those for most other U.S. crops, doesn't cost taxpayers anything, because in most years there are no direct government handouts. And he says it doesn't make sense to cut the U.S. sugar program when other countries, such as Brazil, continue to subsidize their growers.

In December, Meet the Press's Chuck Todd pressed Rubio on his ties to the industry. “How should we, cynically, not look at this as you being good to a donor?”

“It's more than just a donor,” Rubio replied. “These are people that have 14,000, 15,000 jobs in the state of Florida. But the second point is I'm prepared to get rid of the program. My argument has been, let's work out a deal with the other countries to get rid of their program, and we'll get rid of ours, and they compete on an even playing field.”

(Corrects description in 20th paragraph of group that commissioned Iowa State University study.)