Editor’s Note: The “Make or Break” series: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In the coming weeks, The Washington Post will explore a key trait of each of the leading contenders that could help make him or her the country’s next commander in chief — or sink their presidential ambitions. This installment is about Sen. Marco Rubio, who announced he’s running for the Republican presidential nomination on Monday, April 13.
You can see it in his bouncing leg, his restless energy, his rapid-fire answers. Marco Rubio wants things now, now, now.
He has just left the Senate floor, where he ripped President Obama’s Israel policy, and now, seated in his grand Capitol Hill office, he dives headlong into explaining why, at just 43, he is ready to run for president.
“I have never understood that ‘wait your turn,’” logic, the Florida Republican says. “The presidency is not like a bakery, where you take a number and wait for it to be called. You’re either compelled to run for it because you believe it’s the best place to serve your country” or you stay out of the race.
Never mind that his mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, 62, is gearing up to run, too. Or that he has not even finished his first term as senator. Or that the GOP has a long tradition of picking older presidential nominees who have paid their dues.
Rubio is a man in a hurry, whose dizzying political ascent — he has never lost a race — is a testament to his quickness to spot openings and go for them. “If you told me seven or eight years ago I would be in the Senate, I wouldn’t believe it,” Rubio says. “Sometimes opportunities come up that you could never have anticipated.”
The question now, as he aims for the White House, is whether voters ultimately see Rubio as refreshing and bold, the inspiring face of a new generation — or just a promising young pol getting ahead of himself.
Rubio in New Hampshire
During primary season, such questions are often answered in New Hampshire barns. So on one recent freezing afternoon, Rubio stood amid the rough-hewn beams of a pretty red barn in a postcard-quaint New Hampshire town as a crowd of Republican Yankees sized him up.
Rubio’s youth is written all over his moon-shaped face, with soft, boyish features framed by the neatly parted haircut of an altar boy. But now, wearing a casual black pullover and open-neck shirt, Rubio worked to project gravitas and position himself as the bearer of the kind of wise common sense that plays well in New England.
“When is my life going to get better?” Rubio asked, locking eyes with some of the men and women who will decide the nation’s first presidential primary in 2016. That’s what ordinary people want to know, he said, no matter what the newspapers say about a recovering economy.
He took the hand-held microphone and moved to within a few feet of the front row, talking about the need for smaller government, a reimagined higher-education system, a stronger military and an end to what he described as the decline of U.S. prestige abroad: “We are less trusted by allies and less feared by our friends.”
Some heads nodded, but others were more skeptical, including a woman who challenged him on his 2013 bipartisan effort to establish a path to legal status for illegal immigrants. When that measure passed the Senate, it upset many conservatives, who said it amounted to “amnesty.”
“When I first heard you, I liked you a lot — and then you lost me,” because of immigration, she said. “Can you commit, if elected president, to send home every single person that’s violated our country’s laws and is here illegally?”
“I don’t think anyone can commit that to you,” Rubio replied, without a second’s hesitation. “You have 12 million human beings in America, most of whom we don’t even know who they are and some of them whom our country’s not going to tolerate rounding up and sending back.”
Rubio’s powerful political narrative
And he told his parents’ immigration story, how they came from Cuba with a grade-school education. It’s the central pillar of his political narrative, and at every stop he talks about the “exceptionalism” of America, a country where the son of a bartender and a maid grew up knowing that there were no limits to his future.
“They lived the American Dream,” Rubio said. Now, he said, the nation’s urgent challenge is to make sure the next generation can also say “our future can be better than our past.”
Jack Hanover, 69, a small business owner, was impressed. He liked Rubio’s “youth” and “vitality” and said the Florida senator just might be what the Republicans need in 2016.
But others needed more convincing that this up-and-comer was ready to be commander-in-chief.
“I personally think he is a little bit young,” said Ed Stebbins, 57, an insurance agent. “He could use a bit more government — or some other — experience. Being president is not exactly an easy job, and you want somebody who has been in the trenches.”
As the New Hampshire folks kept talking, Rubio was already on the move, barreling down a snowy road toward the next crowd, itching to pitch himself again.
Roots of Rubio’s impatience
Rubio’s impatience is rooted in Cuban soil and in the restlessness of his parents, Mario and Oriales.
The Rubios arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1956 in search of a better future, bringing with them their oldest son, Mario. They had another child, Barbara, not long after they got to Florida. It would be a dozen more years before Marco Antonio — to this day his family calls him “Tony” — was born in 1971.
Rubio’s brother, Mario, is 21 years older than his brother and drove his mother to the hospital in Miami the day Marco was born. A fourth baby, Veronica, came 18 months later.
Mario Rubio, a former Green Beret, says that his parents drilled into them the cost of missed opportunities, “that the worst thing in life is to look back and say, ‘God, I wish I had.’ “
Their mother and father were a living testament to that philosophy. “It’s 1956 . . . they are in Cuba and an opportunity comes up, a possibility, to go to the United States. What would have happened if they didn’t take it? You don’t want to pass up opportunities. . . . We grew up that way,” Mario Rubio says.
His father, he adds, had a “sense of urgency about him” — a trait that he clearly passed to his younger son.
In his 2012 memoir, “An American Son,” Marco Rubio describes how his parents used to take him and Veronica to the International House of Pancakes on Sunday mornings: “Moments after we placed our orders, I would be complaining about the time it took to get our meals. ‘I’m starving, Papí. Where’s the food? Why’s it taking so long?’ Instead of correcting me and urging me to be more patient, my father would become agitated as well, and begin pestering the waitress for our food.
“I struggle with impatience to this day, and when I exhibit the weakness at a restaurant or in some other public place, my wife will remind me that I am behaving like that 6-year-old at IHOP.”
Teachers had a hard time holding Marco’s attention in high school, remembers his sister, Veronica Boulos. He was far more interested in football than his classes. In fact, he was so disruptive that one teacher promised to give him a C-minus if he did not show up, and an F if he did.
But he also had a remarkable ability to absorb information and cite back facts and dates, says Boulos, a graphic designer.
He spent a huge amount of time with his Cuban grandfather, Pedro Victor Garcia, who lived with the family and whom he has described as his “closest boyhood friend,” a cigar-smoking storyteller who loved newspapers, Ronald Reagan and talking about politics and world affairs.
Miami to Las Vegas
When Rubio was about 8, his father moved the family to Las Vegas to take advantage of the booming hotel industry there. His father tended bar, and his mother worked as a hotel housekeeper.
Young Marco liked to gather a posse of kids and tell them the neighborhood was a kingdom. “He never made himself the king,” his sister says, but he was the one who told the others what to do. And they always did what he said.
Rubio’s parents were always in motion, always trying to put their children in a better position for success. When they were living in Las Vegas, Rubio’s mother was intrigued by the wholesome lives of the Mormons she met, and she had Marco and Veronica baptized into the Mormon faith. Rubio started going to Mormon services, and even admonished his father, the bartender, for serving alcohol. But at 12, he left the Mormon church that his father had never felt comfortable in and returned to the Catholic Church.
Then in 1985, when Marco was ready for high school, his parents decided to move back to Miami. And it was there that Marco saw a way into elected office. In 1998, at 26 and not long out of University of Miami law school, he ran for a seat on the city commission of West Miami, a heavily Hispanic municipality of 6,000. He knew he needed the support of the mayor, Rebecca Sosa, and rather than waiting to see her at her office, he went straight to her home.
“Are you Mayor Sosa?” he asked, when he found her tending her garden. “Everyone I talk to tells me that if I want to run for office, I have to come meet you. . . . If you don’t help me, I won’t win.”
Sosa recalls being struck first by his looks — “so young, so handsome.” Then after listening to him explain why he wanted to run, she became an instant Rubio believer. By the next day, she was knocking on doors with him.
“When Marco ran the first time, people said that it will be impossible for him to win,” she says. “But he has the gift to connect with people.”
Not even two years later, when a seat in the Florida state legislature unexpectedly opened up, Rubio went for it and jumped into the special election against a better-known TV anchor. At 28, he won the crucial Republican primary in a runoff by 64 votes and coasted to a win in the general election.
“The opportunity was there. We ran. It worked out. We won,” Rubio says simply.
In Tallahassee, some thought he looked more like an intern than a legislator. Once, the lieutenant governor mistook him for an aide and asked him to make photocopies.
But being underestimated didn’t slow him down, and he moved quickly to build key relationships. In 2007, he became House speaker, the first Cuban American to hold that top spot. He was 35.
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush was there to congratulate him, handing him a ceremonial sword and calling him a “conservative warrior.” Rubio worked to cut government spending and says his biggest achievement in Florida “was developing and enacting a policy agenda based on conservative ideas.”
He was also savvy at getting attention. When he took over as speaker, Rubio put a package under every seat in the chamber. Inside was a book titled “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future,” and the pages were blank. Rubio told the lawmakers that “together we will write a book that will detail and outline our vision for the future.”
It was a flashy move that generated national attention. Former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich called it “a work of genius.”
His Tallahassee tenure was not without controversy. Rubio, the preacher of fiscal restraint, got hammered for using a Florida Republican Party credit card to pay for thousands of dollars in personal expenses, including personal trips and groceries. There were a few double-billed flights, too.
“I shouldn’t have done it that way. It was a lesson learned,” but all the money was repaid, Rubio said in a 2012 Fox News interview.
Even supporters called it a sloppy, rookie mistake.
Others were harsher: “If other people used a company credit card to pay personal expenses, they wouldn’t still have their jobs,” says Alex Villalobos, who was the GOP Senate majority leader in Florida when Rubio was House speaker.
Rubio clearly knows how to win an election, but Villalobos says he can’t think of one significant bill he has passed: “He is asking America to make him the leader of the free world, and he doesn’t have any accomplishments. “
The moment Rubio left the state legislature in 2008, because of Florida’s term-limit laws, is etched in Dan Gelber’s mind. As the Democratic minority leader, Gelber constantly sparred with Rubio on the issues, and called Rubio — an advocate for gun rights and opponent of abortion, gay marriage and legalizing marijuana — “a talented spokesman for the severe right wing.”
On their last day in the House, Gelber offered his parting words, and then Speaker Rubio delivered an emotional farewell, and ended by talking about his faith: “God is real. . . . God is not some old man with a big white beard. . . . God is a real force of love. . . . I have seen it in a hospice nurse,” who stays through the night “because she doesn’t want an old lady to die by herself.”
Amid the standing ovation, Gelber glanced up in the gallery at his wife: “She was crying! I threw up my arms and looked at her and said, ‘Really?’ “
“If he weren’t in politics, he would be a televangelist and be one of the best,” Gelber says.
In fact, in his memoir, Rubio — who loved playacting as a child — describes returning home from Mass and reenacting the service. “I would sometimes wrap myself in a sheet,” he writes, “and pretend to be a priest.”
Asked in his Senate office if he ever seriously considered being a priest, Rubio flashes a smile: “Maybe I thought about being the pope.”
“But,” he says, ever impatient, “the whole priest thing leading up to it for 50 years probably discouraged me from it.”
Improbable Senate victory
In 2009, not long after leaving the statehouse, U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., unexpectedly decided to step down, and Rubio seized his next opening.
The Republican governor, Charlie Crist, wanted the Senate seat, too, and the polls were all but laughing at Rubio: Early surveys showed Crist leading Rubio, 53 percent to 3 percent.
But where others saw a Crist blowout, Rubio saw his next triumph.
And almost as if on some cosmic cue, Crist imploded in a series of blunders, mostly self-inflicted. And on Election Day, in a three-way race where Crist ended up running as an independent, the young Cuban bartender’s son found himself heading to Washington.
At the end of a long day on Capitol Hill, Rubio is just hitting his stride. He is surrounded by family photos, including of his father, who died in 2010, two months before he became a U.S. senator, and his ailing mother, 84, who lives in Miami near his wife and four children.
His 15-minute speech on the Senate floor, in which he called Obama’s treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “historic mistake,” is starting to get pickup on the news. CNN is calling it “fiery,” but Rubio is already on to the next thing, talking about what’s making him run.
Disregarding the polls
He knows he’s a long shot to occupy the White House — still far down the polls in the crowded Republican field — but he is readying plans for how he’ll advance.
A football fanatic, Rubio sees parallels between politics and his favorite game. Preparation and smart strategy are critical, he says, but then there are factors beyond anyone’s control, such as the weather or a bad bounce.
“Maybe something happens in the game that you can’t anticipate,” Rubio says. “All you can do is put yourself in a position to succeed. Ultimately, success is determined by factors outside of your control.”
In 2016, one of those factors could be the Republican Party’s appetite for a fresh face.
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, says that Democrats have long been “better at marketing generational change,” from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. But she says recent polls in Iowa and South Carolina suggest Republicans are looking for a new generation of leadership.
Although that could work in Rubio’s favor, he still faces skepticism that he hasn’t established a record, that he is moving up too fast. Republicans criticized Obama for entering the Oval Office with too little experience. So for some GOP primary voters, it could be tough to rally behind another first-term senator in his 40s.
“The one thing that might be his strongest point — his youth — is also part of his weakness,” said Brad Coker, a Florida pollster.
Rubio knows he’s challenging tradition, shaking things up.
“I understand it’s improbable to believe that the 44-year-old son of a bartender and maid with no family network, with no personal wealth, could aspire to the highest office in the land against people who do have a family network and have been engaged in politics for a very long time,” he says. “But to me that’s actually what defines our country and separates it from the rest of the world.”
Rubio won’t turn 44 until the end of May.
As always, he just can’t wait.
About this series: Presidential traits
The Washington Post’s Make or Break series: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In the coming weeks, The Washington Post will explore a key trait of each of the leading contenders that could help make him or her the country's next commander in chief — or sink their presidential ambitions.