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High stakes for Rubio's high-profile response to Obama

By Dugald McConnell, CNN
February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1355 GMT (2155 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First-term Florida senator will deliver Republican response to Obama's address
  • Rubio has become a leader in GOP immigration reform initiative
  • Analysts say Rubio's efforts could help Republicans win over Latinos
  • Senator's youth could also help attract younger generation to GOP

West Miami, Florida (CNN) -- Sen. Marco Rubio's selection to speak right after the president's State of the Union address marks another milestone in the swift rise of the political star.

Rubio became Florida's speaker of the House at just 35, he pulled off an upset victory over Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race in 2010, he was seen prominently campaigning with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year, and he is already talked about as a future contender for the presidency.

Friends attribute his speedy ascent not only to his personal appeal, but also to out-hustling the competition and being in the right place at the right time.

This year, with the immigration issue becoming a priority in Washington, he is a sought-after voice, thanks to his personal story as the son of Cuban immigrants. He also gives Republicans a fresh face to appeal to new audiences -- especially to younger and Hispanic voters, both of which the GOP once again failed to win over in the last election.

Time magazine dubbed Rubio "The Republican Savior" on its cover and in a lengthy profile. (His modest response, via tweet: "There is only one savior, and it is not me. #jesus")

Rubio: I'm no savior

And now, the prime speaking slot he was selected for is adding to his cachet as an up-and-comer.

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"Marco Rubio is one of our party's most dynamic and inspiring leaders," House Speaker John Boehner said last week.

But even for a politician known for being a good speaker, being awarded the State of the Union role is not without its pitfalls. While President Barack Obama's address has the benefit of a live audience and an imposing setting, the rebuttal, with no audience and no grandeur, can look small by comparison. Rubio will have to compete with the tea party response from Sen. Rand Paul. And Obama can be a tough act to follow -- just ask Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who got low marks for his speech in 2009.

A tough gig

"It is the toughest gig in politics, to follow a State of the Union with all the pomp and circumstance," says Rubio friend and CNN contributor Ana Navarro. "You're following the president of the United States who just got a number of standing ovations."

But regardless of how Tuesday night goes, Rubio has already moved front and center this year on the immigration debate. At a bipartisan press conference last month outlining a set of opening principles, he served as the Republican pitch man -- in English and Spanish -- and he capitalized on his own Cuban roots.

"I live surrounded by immigrants. My neighbors are immigrants," he said. "I see the good of immigration. I see how important it is for our future."

But while Rubio's efforts on the issue have won praise from party leaders like Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, they have also earned him the ire of conservatives who consider the path to citizenship a capitulation tantamount to amnesty.

An editorial in The National Review said, "He is wrong about how to go about repairing our immigration system," because he is acquiescing to an "amnesty-and-enforcement bill."

Conversely, just because Rubio is Hispanic does not mean he is immune to criticism from Hispanics, whether on immigration or on other topics like spending cuts. For example, at a protest last year, where signs said "no somos Rubios," one protester told CNN affiliate WSVN, "We feel the senator is not listening to the people."

It's a big risk for Rubio to take a central role in the coming immigration fight, says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, a fellow Cuban-American. "But thank goodness for our party that he is willing to take that risk."

Analysts say Rubio's efforts on immigration could help Republicans appeal to Latino voters.

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"They feel like the Republican Party hates them," veteran political strategist and analyst Dick Morris told CNN's Piers Morgan. "The Rubio bill has got to pass for Republicans ever to access that vote."

A product of exile community

Marco Antonio Rubio grew up in the exile community of West Miami, raised by parents who came from Cuba in the 1950s. He had long described himself as the son of political exiles who fled the Castro regime, but biographer Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post discovered that in fact his parents had left Cuba before Castro even came to power.

Rubio conceded the error, but rejected the suggestion that the revelation diminished his family's status as political exiles, or that he had embellished his family history.

"Do I wish I had known those dates earlier? Absolutely," he said. "Does it change anything? Absolutely not."

Rubio obtained his first job in politics while he was still a University of Miami student: an internship with Ros-Lehtinen.

She said Rubio impressed her as hard-working, well-spoken and eager to please. Even though he was just an intern, he would talk to voters and work the room on her behalf at events.

"He was a real people-person. He was not just hanging right by my side; he was doing his own networking for me, getting business cards," she said. "He just had standout qualities from day one."

A few years later, Rubio was running for commissioner in West Miami at age 26.

Rebeca Sosa, who was a commissioner at the time, said she was gardening at her house when he came to her asking for support and spelled out why he was running for office.

"I wasn't prepared to see such a young person bringing so much meaning, emotion to his answer of why, that I stopped everything I was doing and I told him, 'Let's go and have coffee,'" she said.

"At that age, usually they are thinking about 'party,' they are thinking about 'girlfriend;' and he was thinking about, 'What can I do to pay back to society?'"

Rubio soon got elected to the Florida House of Representatives and within just a few years his colleagues gave him a term as their leader: Speaker of the House.

Taking a steeper path

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But his next decision -- to run for Senate -- was not the obvious path, since it meant a daunting primary challenge to a popular governor in his own party.

"Early on, the entire establishment was against Marco," said campaign manager Jose Mallea. "There were some tough times when you couldn't raise money or when folks weren't endorsing you."

Rubio painted Crist as a centrist and appealed to conservatives and tea party voters with his focus on economic opportunity, government spending and the debt.

But Crist had statewide name recognition and a strong fund raising base. And Rubio was not without weaknesses, including his youthful appearance and questions about his use of a Republican Party credit card for personal expenses. Rubio blamed the misuse of funds on a mix up and said he reimbursed the party. But Crist reminded voters in a campaign ad that Rubio was being investigated "for using a Republican Party credit card to pay for flights and meals."

In his book "American Son," Rubio said he considered dropping out of the race early on.

"The only people who thought I could win all live in my house," Rubio recounted in a speech last summer. "Four of them were under the age of 10," he said, referring to his four children.

But his wife persuaded him to persevere, and he won a surprise victory.

His wife, Jeanette Dousdebes, a one-time Miami Dolphins cheerleader, keeps a low profile compared to other political spouses. In a rare interview last year, she told Politico what she thinks of making campaign appearances: "In the future, if I have to do it, of course I'll do it. But in general, I am shy."

Rubio first spotted her at the local recreation center in West Miami just a few blocks from the modest house he grew up in (and a few blocks from where he lives now). He proposed to her on Valentine's Day 1997 at the top of the Empire State Building.

In the Senate, Rubio has several characteristics that set him apart from most of his Republican colleagues.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Rubio is not a wealthy man. He did not grow up with money and soon after he was elected to the Florida legislature he had to give up his car and move into his mother-in-law's house. He still owed significant debt on his student loans when he was elected to the Senate, although thanks to the royalties from his book, he has now paid them off.

Not exactly an NFL prospect

After high school, Rubio earned a football scholarship to a college in Missouri, playing cornerback. He soon transferred back to Florida as the school ran into financial difficulties, and he admits he was never destined to be NFL material. Instead, he jokes about how ironic it is that his wife made it to the NFL but he didn't come close.

Still, when former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino threw him a few passes on the floor of the Florida House in 2006, with a crowd watching, Rubio showed his stuff -- first making an easy catch, but then also some harder ones.

He is younger than all the other senators, except Mike Lee of Utah, who is a week younger, so he may be mistaken for a junior aide in Capitol elevators.

But he also may have a better sense of younger generations than most of his colleagues. For example, in a recent interview posted on BuzzFeed, the senator offered a detailed discourse on rap and hip-hop. At the risk of offending some of his audience, he compared two top rappers from the 1990s by declaring, "Tupac's lyrics were more insightful -- apologies to Biggie fans." Asked by GQ to name his favorite rap songs, he listed "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A., "Killuminati" by Tupac, and Eminem's "Lose Yourself."

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But when it comes to religion, he describes himself as a traditional Catholic -- albeit one who also was baptized Mormon when his family converted for a few years while living in Las Vegas. More recently, he has supplemented Catholic Masses by also attending services at a Baptist church in Miami, according to his office.

As soon as he won his Senate race, Rubio drew speculation about potential presidential aspirations and immediate comparisons to Barack Obama.

Like Barack Obama, Marco Rubio is young and well-spoken, comes from an ethnic minority and has only a few years of experience in the Senate. In addition, he came to Washington after serving in his state legislature, as did Obama, and he benefited greatly from a high-profile speaking role at his party's convention in 2012 -- as Obama did in 2004.

But Rubio has not been shy about his critique of the president, especially while he was campaigning for Romney last year.

"He is a bad president," Rubio said bluntly in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Florida last summer. "Under Barack Obama, the only change is that hope is hard to find."

Observers expect no less from his speech on Tuesday night.

Supporters in his hometown of West Miami will be watching closely. Rebeca Sosa is organizing a Rubio watching party at the same rec center where he first saw his future wife.

A few blocks away on the main drag of West Miami, an older man is holding a sign in front of Versailles Restaurant as the cars pass by on 8th Street.

"Marco Rubio for president 2016," it says.

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