PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla.-At a July 15 town hall meeting at Sonny's Bar-B-Q in Panama City Beach, Fla., Sizzlin' Sweet Sauce on Smokey Ribs is just one of the hot items confronting Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio.
Rubio began his presentation by promising the packed lunchtime crowd he wanted to listen more than talk. Now he is getting an earful. "Sir, I'm a 30-year veteran of the U.S. government," says former Army soldier and federal marshal employee Joseph Wilds, 51, as he walks toward Rubio. "I've earned the right to speak out."
Wilds, wearing flip-flops and a red, white, and blue Harley-Davidson T-shirt, backs up this right by mentioning his Vietnam veteran father and a World War II veteran grandfather. "How are you, an individual, going to go up there and make changes?"
"Up there" is Congress, where Rubio, just 39, hopes to bolster the Republican minority's conservative wing in the Senate by winning a seat this November. Despite being weary after making five campaign stops in the last 24 hours, Rubio leans into the question with a dark-eyed stare: "There is no way I can do that by myself."
The answer, delivered in the direct manner that Rubio has become known for on the campaign trail, does not stop Wilds, who edges even closer to Rubio. "Most politicians, they say what everybody wants to hear, and then when they get into office they don't hear what we have to say. How are you . . ."
"Different?" Rubio finishes the question. "That question comes up everywhere."
It is a question even Rubio asked of himself more than a year ago when he first decided to challenge moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist for the Senate seat of retiring Republican Mel Martinez.
Rubio hit a Florida nerve. He turned Crist's 35-point poll lead (and $4 million fundraising advantage) last summer into a double-digit Rubio lead. The darling of conservatives angry over Republicans' help in growing government, Rubio hit Crist like a hurricane. Crist left the Republican Party in April and began campaigning for the Senate as an Independent.
Rubio's ability to drive a sitting governor from his own party shocked many. And Rubio has kept up his energy this summer: His campaign raised a Florida record $4.5 million in the quarter that ended June 30-that's a million more than Rubio raised in 2010's first quarter. Crist raised $1.8 million for the second quarter.
But Crist's gambit kept him alive. The race is now labeled a toss-up, with Rubio and Crist swapping 2- to 3-percentage-point leads in recent polls. The race's leading Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, facing a late and largely self-funded primary challenge from billionaire Jeff Greene, remains more than 20 points behind Rubio and Crist.
While Crist's departure from the GOP ended the intra-party fight, the race's stakes are much higher than the future of one party. "The issue is whether we are going to elect people who are willing to say or do anything to get elected," Rubio told me. "Here you have someone who is so obsessed with winning an election that he will change parties just to get elected. Are we going to reward that kind of behavior?"
Rubio admits that running against the incumbent governor of your own party was not the next logical step up the political ladder. But Rubio decided to take on Crist after three months of soul searching in early 2009, fueled by Crist's warm embrace of President Obama's economic stimulus package.
Rubio turned to faith and family when trying to determine whether he wanted to run for the right reasons. "For those who have the Christian faith and are in politics, there is a constant struggle between a desire to do what is right and how that sometimes may not coincide with what is popular," said Rubio, a Roman Catholic whose family has spent the last six years attending a Miami-area nondenominational church, Christ Fellowship. "I hope that, more often than not, I make the right choice."
Rubio tells voters that he is 100 percent pro-life, adding that he is fine with losing half the voters in Florida over that issue.
Rubio and his wife have four children. During a recent campaign swing through the Florida panhandle, Rubio's 5-year-old son, Anthony, tagged along. Before shaking the hands of those in the room-the first activity of a typical politician-Rubio often led Anthony, toting headphones and a portable DVD player, to a nearby table. At one point, Rubio's speech was interrupted by a tug on his pant leg. Anthony had to go to the bathroom.
"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.
The Florida Panhandle may be a Republican stronghold in what remains a very purple state, but people here seem both drawn to Rubio and eager for him to take on the title that would come with victory. "Senator, can I go ahead and say it?" asked one participant at a Panama City Beach forum. He hopes it is not too early to address Rubio as part of what is often called the world's most exclusive club.
"It's going to be 'Marco' no matter what," Rubio shot back, seemingly not tempted by the title.
Rubio portrays himself as the everyman antidote to the current ruling class. It seems to be working. His appeal extends to the internet where he has more than 100,000 Facebook friends compared to Crist's 27,000.
"Marco is not too proud to shop at Wal-Mart," said Dave Murzin, a Republican state representative from Pensacola who served alongside Rubio. That would be a stark contrast in a Senate where senators have an average net worth of $14 million.
Because of this connection, voters easily cry out to Rubio about their fears.
At a Navarre, Fla., pizza place, Susan Berel, a 44-year-old accountant, shook both her arms at Rubio:
"We are dying here, and not just here . . . the whole country," she pleaded. "Are you willing to get yourself up there and say, 'This is unacceptable'?" Elsewhere a 60-year-old fisherman hoped Rubio "will think about us" in Washington, while a grandfather hoisted his granddaughter above his shoulders and proclaimed that she is what November's elections are about.
"You want to keep that sentiment close to you because it will serve as a reminder," Rubio told me. "If I get to Washington, D.C., I will have to fight every day the temptation to become a part of that culture."
At the end of Rubio's BBQ event, I ran outside to catch Wilds, the man who asked Rubio the tough questions. Wilds, who served 18 years in the Army and a dozen years as a federal marshal, admitted that he would probably vote for Rubio. But he still had doubts: "He can't go up there and change things all by himself."
Changing Washington's culture surely is not a one-person job. And it remains to be seen whether Rubio's outsider message will appeal beyond the state's conservative voters.
Al Castro, a 75-year-old Puerto-Rican American, ordered his food to go at a Pensacola seafood house when he heard Rubio would be speaking in the next room. After Rubio's appearance, Castro seemed satisfied. "I think he will be a thorn in Obama's saddle," he said.
That may have to be good enough for now.
To hear Edward Lee Pitts discuss this topic on the Knowing the Truth radio program, click here.