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Marco Rubio's American Dream Is To Be in the White House

/ Source: NBC News

Long before Sen. Marco Rubio told donors of his presidential bid, he was being thought of as a potential GOP presidential candidate or a likely running mate on the Republican ticket.

His ease on and off the podium, his oratory, his story as a son and grandson of Cuban immigrants and the reality that the Latino electorate was quickly becoming key to winning the White House all served as part of a foundation on which the party could build a potential ticket.

On Monday, Rubio, R-Fla., steps into the presidential fray, now with a more altered place in the Republican ranks. In recent years Rubio has had a chance to hone his public persona as he has worked to build legislative chops on major economic and international issues.

But his record on immigration stands as a possible obstacle to wooing Hispanics while also forcing him to carefully navigate the conservative Republican base. In his run to be the GOP pick, he also has to take down a person who had nurtured his political career - Jeb Bush - and all the backers and donors that go with the former Florida governor, a brother and son of former U.S. presidents with his own familiarity with the Hispanic community.

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While Rubio’s campaign spokesman Alex Conant declined a request for an interview with Rubio before the announcement, conversations about the senator portrayed him as intensely driven in forging a path for himself to the White House.

“It would be a mistake to underestimate him,” said Manuel Roig-Franzia, author of “The Rise of Marco Rubio.” “He was underestimated when he announced he was going to run for the Senate. No one expected he would be able to beat Charlie Crist. He was underestimated by the Republican establishment that was not supporting him.”

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As he campaigns, there will be similarities drawn between him and Sen. Barack Obama, both young senators in their first terms when the presidential ambitions took hold, both able to energize crowds with rhetoric and also both racial or ethnic minorities.

He is one of two presidential candidates in the GOP primary who are Latino - the other is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas who is also Cuban-American, a first for the country.

“He’s bicultural, he’s bilingual and he should be able to make strides, although his position on some issues is going to have to be clarified as the debate goes on,” said Carlos Gutierrez, who served as Commerce Secretary under former President George W. Bush.

Rubio's backers insist he has greater legislative experience than Obama did, having served as speaker of the Florida state House. In his four years as a U.S. senator, as opposed to Obama’s two before running, he has served on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.

The last credible Latino to run for president was Bill Richardson, who made a short-lived bid for president in 2008. The first was Ben Fernandez, who sought the GOP nomination in 1980, when a California governor named Ronald Reagan also ran.

“He’s bicultural, he’s bilingual and he should be able to make strides, although his position on some issues is going to have to be clarified as the debate goes on,” said Carlos Gutierrez, who served as Commerce Secretary under former President George W. Bush.

Gutierrez said he plans to back Jeb Bush should Bush announce - as expected - that he is also running for president. But Gutierrez also said that as a Cuban American, he’s proud to see two Cuban Americans running for president with some chances of success.

Democrats responded to Rubio's announcement with five things they think Latinos should know about Rubio, all critical. They said he opposes the minimum wage and criticized his tax plan, along with his immigration views and his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which has reduced the rate of uninsured among Latinos.

Rubio’s Hispanic background will come to a head with his immigration politics, since he must be able to attract far right conservative voters in the primary. But should he win the nomination, he must do better than the mere 27 percent of the Latino vote in the general election that Mitt Romney managed in 2012 on a “self-deportation” immigration platform.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington, March 10, 2015.JOSHUA ROBERTS / Reuters

“I believe his challenge will be the Latino vote outside the Cuban American community, especially on the West Coast, Texas, Chicago.” Gutierrez said. “He’s well known in the Cuban community, but not in other parts of the Latino community.”

Cubans are the fourth largest population of the nation's Hispanics, numbering about 2 million of the total 54 million U.S. Latinos. About three quarters of U.S. Cubans live in Florida, but there are Cuban communities also in New Jersey, New York, California and Texas. Voters of Cuban descent have become less adamantly Republican, with younger Cuban Americans leaning increasingly Democratic, according to Pew Research Center.

Roig-Franzia said as a Latino presidential candidate, Rubio is in a fundamentally challenging position. “There is an expectation of Latino candidates that they will address immigration and in Rubio’s case that’s a difficult situation.”

Rubio was one of the members of the so-called “Gang of Eight,” the name given to the eight senators who hammered out a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill that the Senate approved in 2013. As one of the Republicans on the “gang,” Rubio was the face of the legislation, going on TV to promote the comprehensive immigration reform bill and trying to sell it to conservative voters on talk radio.

That cost him with conservatives, leading him to retreat on the bill he helped craft and back the House-favored piecemeal approach that called for addressing border security and enforcement first. The House ended up refusing to address any immigration legislation in 2014, but has advanced enforcement legislation this year.

Rubio also has been highly critical of Obama's use of executive action to shield millions of immigrants here illegally from deportation and provide them with work permits, saying the action was unconstitutional. An MSNBC/Telemundo poll found 78 percent of Latinos support the executive action.

“He ran with a message that appealed to voters who are interested in getting tough on immigration,” Roig-Franzia said. “And he got in office and then moved much more to the center on immigration and that left a bad taste in the mouths of some right-wing conservative Republican-based voters who had thought of him as a different kind of politician.”

Working for him is his American Dream story along with his quickness in becoming an expert on issues, particularly foreign policy, say observers. Rubio was less adept at that earlier in his political career.

Hector Barreto, Hispanic Roundtable Business Institute president, sees Rubio’s decision to walk away from the sweeping immigration bill as a plus for him in the campaign, showing his passion for the issue.

“Part of his brand is he’s the kind of leader who if he thinks he is right, is going to take courageous stands and let the chips fall where they may,” said Barreto, the former head of the Small Business Administration in the George W. Bush administration.

“I’m thankful he at least tried to do something about it. Has he abandoned the issue? No, there’s nothing else that’s going to happen in the Senate,” said Barreto.

A key Republican member of the Gang of Eight, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina didn’t see it that way. After Rubio turned away from the comprehensive bill, Graham, also a potential GOP presidential contender, called Rubio “another young guy not quite ready” to be president, evoking some of the criticism of Obama. He went on to say Rubio was afraid of the right wing of the party.

Despite the troubling path on immigration, Rubio is not a one-issue candidate and is adept at crafting a message to explain his actions, Roig-Franzia said.

“I don’t think in any way shape or form that the difficulties he’s had in calibrating his immigration message will be deal killers at the national level,” he said.

Working for him is his American Dream story along with his quickness in becoming an expert on issues, particularly foreign policy. In 2010, he was running for the Senate having served as Florida’s House speaker and now “he’s talked about one of the leading experts on foreign policy in the Republican party,” Roig-Franzia said.

“It’s a perfect example of him assessing what would have been a liability and turning it into an asset,” he said.

Rubio was less adept at that earlier, particularly when Roig-Franzia’s book revealed discrepancies in the story the senator had told about his family’s arrival in the U.S. from Cuba.

Contrary to Rubio’s recounting of his family story at the time, his parents were economic migrants who came to the U.S. before the Castro-led revolution, not after as he had said. His grandfather also had come to the U.S on a visa and failed to leave when he was ordered deported from the country.

Rubio’s angry reaction when the details of his family’s immigration story became public revealed a tendency to try to explain himself in a controversial situation without saying “mea culpa,” Roig-Franzia said. His reaction was seen as a test of Rubio’s ability to manage a crisis. By making additional statements, Rubio stretched what might have been a one- or two-day controversy into a much longer one, he said.

But as years have passed Rubio has since become better at diffusing controversies, such as when he took a water break in the middle of giving the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address. Within minutes, Rubio’s office was sending out photos of a water bottle and was selling Marco Rubio water bottles as a fundraiser, making the mistake work for him.

“I think the best thing is for him to be himself, which is what I believe Jeb Bush is doing,” Gutierrez said. “I think that will be a challenge for any candidate, including Marco Rubio, being who your are during the primaries and during the election."

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