Did the home sale buy his vote? Rubio says no. "My understanding was that her husband had passed away," he told CBS4. "She had some life insurance proceeds that she was using to buy it, and she was willing to close on it quickly."

As Rubio's final session began in March 2008, his top priorities again looked custom-built to win over the antitax zealots who would later form the Tea Party's base. He advocated a flat property tax cap and a constitutional amendment imposing a strict spending cap.

His ambition, though, again proved greater than his ability to find consensus. Both his tax plan and spending cap made it out of committee, but as the House was forced to make the deepest budget cuts in state history, the Senate refused to even take up the plans.

Rubio gives blood as a high school senior.
Rubio gives blood as a high school senior.

In the end, Rubio's two terms as speaker had yielded no flashy tax overhaul, but the House did pass 57 of his "100 Innovative Ideas."

On May 2, 2008, Rubio's last day as speaker, his voice cracked as he dedicated his time in the House to his parents. "I've been distracted almost my entire life by this obsession to do all the things they couldn't do," Rubio said. "So if I look a little hyper or a little focused... I want you to know what's driving me. I want them to know that their lives mattered."

It was a heartfelt speech. But Rubio couldn't avoid one last bit of shady business on his way out of Tally. Weeks after the session, Florida International University offered him a $69,000-a-year gig teaching a few political science classes. The offer came as FIU slashed 38 faculty jobs, shut six labs, and axed 23 degrees because of a $32 million shortfall. Then it was disclosed that as speaker, Rubio had helped green-light a $15 million hurricane research center as well as $11 million for a medical school.

On a recent summer day, about 100 Rubio supporters crowd into a chic Tampa deli with sharply angled wine racks along exposed brick walls. They turn their heads toward a denim-clad, middle-aged woman whose eyes narrow suspiciously as she grills Rubio about the Gulf oil spill: "The Obama administration is intentionally dragging their feet on this disaster," she insists loudly, "for its own political agenda."

Rubio tugs at his ring finger and shakes his head. "I don't think the president is intentionally prolonging this disaster. I do think there's a lack of competence in how they're addressing it."

In the two months since Rubio achieved his greatest political victory — forcing Crist to drop out of the GOP primary to run as an independent — the former speaker has moved rapidly toward the middle on issues such as the oil spill.

It's just the beginning of the struggle Rubio faces before November's unprecedented three-way vote for U.S. Senate, when he'll have to reinvent himself again by convincing the whole electorate — not just Tea Party-fueled primary voters — he's the right man to send to Washington.

Rubio's Senate race began May 5, 2009, when he declared a bid to replace Sen. Mel Martinez, the first Cuban-American elected to that body. In challenging Crist, Rubio touted his own, more conservative values. "The more Republicans become less distinguishable from Democrats, the less people will vote for Republicans," he told the Herald.

His timing was impeccable. He drew interest from a movement he had helped foment as speaker: the rapidly forming Tea Party, which exploded later that summer as protesters ambushed town hall meetings on Obama's health-care plan. And before announcing his Senate bid, Rubio had spent months meeting with any dissatisfied conservative group that would host him.

"Back in April 2009, when he was still relatively unknown, Marco came to talk to our club and totally won us over," says Bradley Gerber, head of the Miami Young Republicans. "Charlie Crist wouldn't even return our calls, much less come to a meeting."

Rubio's profile soon soared as he became a regular guest with the Tea Party's patron saint, Fox News' Glenn Beck. The New York Times Magazine January cover cemented Rubio as the face of the movement.

In his bid to unseat Crist, Rubio has also raised more than $11 million and counting. About $100,000 of that cash has come from political action committees, including the antitax Club for Growth, his largest individual donor. Then there are the big businesses he helped as speaker: Florida Crystals, State Farm, and a host of developers.

With the money and national exposure, Rubio's poll numbers soared throughout early 2010. By April, he'd sunk Crist into an almost 30-point hole among primary voters. On April 29, at a hastily called news conference in a St. Petersburg park, the governor abandoned the Republican Party.

It was another remarkable coup for Rubio. But in the months since, his star has dimmed.

The week before Crist's announcement, the IRS had opened a "preliminary" investigation into Rubio's use of the GOP-funded credit card — the same one he used to buy that $135 haircut and to fix the family van. Then Jim Greer, GOP chairman during Rubio's time in Tallahassee, was arrested and charged with six felonies for allegedly diverting party money into a shell business. As Greer testifies to the feds and as Rubio's own records are scrutinized, it's likely more information will emerge about Rubio's questionable spending.

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