On June 14, another embarrassing lapse tainted Rubio's credentials as a financial reformer. Deutsche Bank filed a suit in Leon County to foreclose on a house he owned just outside Tallahassee with David Rivera — his loyal lieutenant in the House and now a candidate for U.S. Congress. The pair had missed five months of payments on the home, which they had bought for $135,000 in 2005.

The foreclosure was dropped a week later when Rubio and Rivera repaid $9,525 to the bank. Rubio says they had stopped paying over a dispute in interest rates.

For the past month, Rubio has traveled the state every week trying to reharness the energy that helped him topple Crist. He has turned again to the same themes that define his political life: escape from Cuba and belief in small government.

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

And he has raised even more money. He recently attended a massive New York fundraiser hosted by hedge fund manager Paul Singer the same night Congress passed new financial reforms. Plus he pulled in more than $4.5 million in the last quarter, four times Meek's fundraising.

It's a roasting June afternoon in suburban Orlando, and Rubio stops at a sprawling new Italian restaurant, where flat screens alternate a World Cup match and a Fox News report. He strides confidently to the front of the room, stopping to pose for photos with supporters in anti-IRS T-shirts and "Abolish the Tax Code" hats. He isn't fazed by polls that show Crist has surged ahead five points.

"I was born a citizen of the single greatest nation in all of human history," he says. "It doesn't matter that your dad was a bartender and your mom was a stock clerk — you can still run for U.S. Senate." Then he pauses as if daunted by the possibilities: a Senate seat, an IRS indictment, a presidential nomination. "There's one question we all have to ask: Are we exceptional, or do we want to be like everyone else?"

Francisco Alvarado and Danielle Alvarez contributed reporting to this article.

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