In Rubio, Some See Rise of ‘Great Right Hope’


CORAL GABLES, Fla. — For many Tea Party conservatives, Hispanics, and young Americans frustrated with the national debt that baby boomers have saddled on their future, Marco Rubio’s victory in the Florida Senate race gave them an extra reason to celebrate.

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The right finally had an action hero: young, dynamic, serious about policy, with a biography ready-made for inspiration. “He’s our Cuban Barack Obama,” said Alex Lacayo, 36, a campaign volunteer at the Rubio victory party on Tuesday night who could not stop giving hugs to strangers. “He gives us hope.” The comparison has been made before, but by coming from behind to handily defeat Gov. Charlie Crist as well as Representative Kendrick B. Meek, Mr. Rubio, 39, has completed his entrance onto the national stage. With turbocharged help from the Tea Party, he has gone from a no-name former state lawmaker to what the conservative press calls the “great right hope.” And yet his path to the Senate has not been in a straight line, and neither, friends and supporters say, is his path forward. Mr. Rubio is not a libertarian like Rand Paul, the newly elected senator from Kentucky, and his policy expertise was honed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, not Sarah Palin. His positions have shifted on issues like immigration, and after a campaign waged with ideological fervor and sprinkled with anti-Obama speeches, he now seems eager to play the pragmatist. Who is Marco Rubio? At a news conference on Wednesday, at least, he was a young senator-elect who only mentioned President Obama once, in the context of finding a way to work with him, not against him. But he also was an insurgent who said voters were demanding change. “You better not go up there and become like everybody else,” Mr. Rubio said, describing the message he had heard. The Republican establishment has been quick to claim Mr. Rubio as its own. During the primary, before his momentum led Mr. Crist to leave the Republican fold to run as an independent, Mr. Rubio attracted support from a who’s who of the party. Former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed him. Mitt Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Ms. Palin all campaigned with him. At times, it was as if he was the one being sought, not the other way around. Those who have known Mr. Rubio for years said they had been surprised at how quickly his fortunes had changed. Rebeca Sosa, a member of the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners who has known Mr. Rubio since he entered politics, said voters in his own neighborhood failed to recognize him when he knocked on doors at the beginning of his Senate campaign. It was a somewhat less humiliating experience than when he joined the State Legislature in 2000 and was mistaken for an aide three years later because of his youth. Mr. Rubio said Wednesday that he was glad his campaign had faced long odds at first. “When we didn’t have money, when didn’t have an organization, the only thing we had in this campaign was our principles, our message,” he said. “That’s what kept us going.” By late last year, that message — to “reclaim America” and cut federal spending to protect the next generation — had begun to catch on. The Tea Party was rising just as Mr. Rubio began attacking Governor Crist for the infamous hug he shared with Mr. Obama at a Florida rally for the federal stimulus package. His bond with the Tea Party was a marriage of perfect timing. “When you go back to last year, when this was being expressed, I noticed a real frustration that neither party spoke to the mainstream of America, their aspirations for their country and their families,” Mr. Rubio told reporters on Wednesday. “And the Tea Party movement became an expression of that.” Or, as Steve Schale, who was Mr. Obama’s Florida campaign director in 2008, put it: “Rubio wasn’t so much the Tea Party candidate as the candidate that the Tea Party embraced. It’s like 2008. Did Barack Obama create the movement, or did the movement create Barack Obama?” Mr. Rubio and activists on the right joined forces more officially in February, when Mr. Rubio gave the keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was his first big hit on a national stage. His speech combined humor, patriotism and attacks on spending by the Democratic-controlled Congress. “It was the perfect race for the narrative that defined the election,” said Lisa De Pasquale, director of the conference. “It said he was ready for prime time.”About that time, Florida residents like Mr. Lacayo, a Nicaraguan immigrant who owns an import-export business, began to pay more attention. Mr. Lacayo said he volunteered for the campaign because he was inspired by the candidate’s story of growing up with the values and work ethic that were passed down by his immigrant parents, who worked as a bartender and a maid.Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, said Mr. Rubio reflected the rise of a new generation of party leaders who could “win the center with his principles, not despite them.” Alberto R. Cardenas, a former chairman of the FloridaRepublican Party, said the victory provided Mr. Rubio the opportunity to redefine his party’s appeal, particularly among Hispanics. “Our message to Hispanics is going to driven by values,” Mr. Cardenas said. Mr. Rubio also faces several difficult challenges. Particularly on issues relating to immigration, he is a jumble of contradictions. He is bilingual but supports making English the official language of the United States — although he grew up in Miami-Dade County in the 1980s, when many Cuban immigrants saw an English-only requirement for local government as blatantly discriminatory. He is a son of exiles who has made his parents’ story a centerpiece of his campaign, but who also reversed his opposition to the new Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigrants after being pressured by conservatives. (He said adjustments to the law allayed his concerns that it went too far.) Even his positions on economic policy can be difficult to pin down. In July, he laid out 12 steps to cut spending, which included raising the age for Social Security eligibility and giving the president a line-item veto over budget items. Rarely, though, does Mr. Rubio talk about the programs he thinks should be cut. Mr. Schale, the Democratic strategist, said Mr. Rubio’s greatest challenge would be similar to Mr. Obama’s when he joined the Senate in 2004: managing the expectations that have come less from detailed plans than from soaring language. Mr. Castellanos said Mr. Rubio needed to be wary of all his new friends. “His biggest challenge is not to get captured by either the G.O.P. or the Tea Party,” he said. “It is to remain Rubio.” The senator-elect appears to understand that his work is just beginning. In his victory speech on Tuesday night, after the salsa band stopped playing and one of the speakers joked about his future run for president, Mr. Rubio asked the crowd to pray that he would stay true to his ideals. On Wednesday, he dismissed talk of a White House race. “It’s flattering and it’s fleeting,” he said. “Politics is full of one-hit wonders, of people that stood in a room like this with a bunch of cameras, and no one hears from them anymore.” He added, “It’s not going to get to my head.”

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