Cover Story

The challenger's challenge

"The challenger's challenge" Continued...

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

"I bet you've never had that happen to a candidate before," Rubio improvised to great applause.

This faith and family foundation comes from Rubio's Cuban exile parents. Born in Miami, Rubio spent his childhood in a working-class neighborhood. His father tended bar. His mother worked in retail and as a maid.

Rubio remembers hearing his father coming in late each night after a 16-hour workday. Leaving for school in the mornings, Rubio would run into his mom returning from an overnight shift as a Kmart stock clerk. Rubio says his parents' story is the "very essence of the American miracle."

"In almost no other nation on earth could I even have the chance to stand here and give you this speech," he told one crowd.

His family's experience instilled in Rubio a passion for America. The promise of America is something he preaches about at every campaign stop, calling the nation the "greatest society in all of human history."

Rubio's humble roots enhance anti­establishment bona fides as he takes on the political class.

Many established Republican leaders in Florida and Washington, including top Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and John McCain, endorsed Crist when he first announced his Senate candidacy in May 2009. At the time it may have made sense: Crist, as the sitting governor, had hefty fundraising and organizational machines already in place. He had the experience and name recognition to keep the seat Republican.

But average Florida Republicans, in the face of the stimulus, bailouts, and healthcare overhaul, began to notice Rubio and his limited-government stance. By last August's fiery town hall debates, Rubio, thanks to the growing Tea Party movement, had become the symbol of a new type of politician.

A casual observer could conclude that Rubio got lucky, tapping into the Tea Party's anti-establishment zeitgeist at just the right time. But Rubio had sensed this castigation of the career politician years ago.

Rubio, who received his law degree at the University of Miami, served as a city commissioner for West Miami before winning a seat in the Florida House in 2000 at the age of 29. Entering state politics just as Florida adopted term limits enabled Rubio to rise fast. He became House speaker in 2006, the youngest in the state's history and the first Cuban-American to wield the gavel.

The year before assuming the speakership, Rubio noticed a strong disconnect between the issues dominating politics and the issues discussed around a family's kitchen table. To close that gap, Rubio decided to travel the state to ask voters what they would do in his position. These meetings, called "idea raisers," led to the publication of the booklet 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future.

With Rubio as speaker, the Florida House eventually passed all 100 ideas. While many died in the Senate, 57 are now law or policy in Florida. As speaker, Rubio again reached out to voters, traveling the state in a highly publicized but ultimately unsuccessful push for property tax reform. The 100 ideas and the property tax tour put Rubio in front of many Floridians who now participate in the state's Tea Party movement, one of the biggest in the nation.

Now, as Rubio crisscrosses Florida, he tells voters that the government should focus on two things: growing the economy and protecting its people.

He comes armed with applause-generating Washington-attack lines that further enhance his outsider street cred:

"Our federal government isn't just broke, it's broken."

"Washington has not solved a major problem in 30 years."

He blames Congress for the "most anti-business agenda in the modern history of this country," with regulations threatening to make the United States "the greenest Third World country on the planet."

At events Rubio hands out a four-page policy paper, hefty for such rallies. It details 12 ways to grow the nation's economy. Seven of the steps deal with taxes, including extending tax cuts, easing corporate taxes, and permanently ending the estate tax.

"You should be able to do your taxes in less than five minutes on a sheet of paper the size of a postcard," Rubio repeated in another crowd favorite line.

But beyond the policy proposals, Rubio goes after the makeup of the entrenched politician. He repeatedly derides the "30-second sound bite" mentality of politics. With the Gulf oil spill giving Crist a higher profile as governor, Rubio denounced lawmakers for politicizing the disaster by strolling the beach with a platoon of photographers.

Rubio seems to practice what he preaches. At events he bypasses any colorful or humorous opening anecdotes. Instead he barrels right into Washington's problems, speaking with a sense of urgency.

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