Four days after his 39th birthday, Marco Rubio flashes a toothy grin in a sunlit conference hall. Crow's-feet wrinkle around his eyes as 60 supporters, mostly gray-haired and clad in pastel polos, stand and clap. More than one hand reaches for a hearing aid before the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate speaks to the group gathered in the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
Rubio, who is handsome in a boyish, Young Republican way, launches into his stump speech with a jarringly weak voice. His tone is nasal, and his rhythm is marred by a slight lisp.
His message, though, resonates: His parents migrated from Cuba to Miami to give him a better life; the Obama administration is dangerous; the federal debt will crush the next generation.
"We are at a real crossroads," he gravely tells the gathering. "There are only two ways we can go. Either my children, your children, and your grandchildren can grow up to be the freest, most prosperous Americans ever... or else they will be the first generation to inherit from their parents and grandparents a diminished nation."
After the 15-minute speech, each voter sees just what he or she wants to see in Rubio. To Dick Dietz, a retired manufacturing vice president, he promises a return to Reagan Republicanism.
To Bryan Tupper, a snaggletoothed, unemployed 27-year-old from Bradenton, he's a fire-breathing reformer.
To two elderly precinct captains covered in Rubio buttons, he's the kind of pragmatic dealmaker who can get things done in Washington.
None of these views is quite accurate. Though Rubio declined multiple invitations for an interview over the past year, New Times trailed him for a month across 1,300 miles of rallies, from Tampa Bay to Orlando. We also spoke to family, friends, former football teammates, and present-day adversaries.
Rubio, we found, is a world-class opportunist with an uncanny habit of being in the right place at the right time. He's driven, ambitious, and relentless. And he's a hypocrite: a "fiscally conservative" Republican who has let his own home lapse into foreclosure, likely abused state party credit cards, and spent tens of thousands of dollars in political donations on personal expenses. He's a supposed outsider who's been a party-line politician since he was 26 years old.
It's possible the Glenn Beck-inspired masses who propelled Rubio to become the "First Senator From the Tea Party" — as the New York Times famously dubbed him in January — will detect his flaws before it's too late. Voters in the general election might decide they prefer Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent, or Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.
Although Crist has held a narrow lead in the polls, Rubio's remarkable fundraising makes him a likely favorite to win the Senate seat. And that will position him for an infinitely bigger prize. Republican sages, from Rudy Giuliani to Grover Norquist to Newt Gingrich, have touted Rubio for the GOP nomination for the presidency in 2012.
"It's no secret that Marco wants to be the first Cuban-American president," says Sen. Steve Geller, the top Democrat in the Florida Senate when Rubio was House Speaker. "He's smart, he's ambitious, and, candidly, I wouldn't want to be the guy that gets in his way. Because you'll regret it."
On a sweltering Friday in September 1988, the South Miami High Cobras team bus trundled down Bird Road toward Tamiami Park. Not only were the football players on their way to face rival Coral Gables but they were also hustling to reach the stadium for a scheduled 3 p.m. kickoff. Several days before, wannabe gangs connected to the schools had clashed at a concert, leaving two kids with gunshot wounds and 20 others hurt. Administrators were worried. Stern-faced cops lined the gridiron.
When Octavio Matamoros, a bulky sophomore offensive lineman, saw his teammates become confused before the big game, he says they turned to an undersized senior cornerback wearing number 46. "Marco Rubio was like Tom Brady, characterwise," Matamoros says. "You could always tell he understood the game from an intellectual standpoint even if he wasn't the fastest guy or the biggest guy out there."
Indeed, young Marco was a five-foot-nine, 170-pound kid with a skinny neck and neatly parted Alex P. Keaton hair. But what he lacked in size and stature he made up for with smarts, fearlessness, and aggression. "He pushes himself to the limit," says his older brother, Mario, who starred as a quarterback at South Miami. "He just does not stop."
In front of fewer than 100 fans — and a squadron of police officers — Marco and the rest of the defense held Coral Gables to minus-34 rushing yards. The Cobras cruised to a 35-7 beatdown.
"You had to be a tough kid to play on that defense," says Sam Miller, the coach.
On the campaign trail, Rubio credits that tenacity to his parents, Mario and Oria. Both were born in Havana and grew up desperately poor, Rubio says. Oria, as a girl, dressed old Coke bottles in scraps of cloth for dolls. His dad often slept behind factories, using wooden pallets for beds.