Rubio is an Underdog, But So Is His Hoped-For Constituency

Two days, two presidential announcements. On Sunday, Hillary Clinton confirmed the inevitable – that she would be making yet another bid for the White House, this time without any young Democratic upstarts to get in her way. The announcement gave her immediate front-runner status, not only for the Democratic nomination, but for the presidency. Undeterred, Sen. Marco Rubio jumped into the race, where he’ll face long odds, not only for the presidency, but for winning his home state of Florida.

Rubio is not new to the idea of being the underdog, indeed he has made a career out of it. Rubio grew up relatively poor, one of four children to Cuban exiles. His father worked as a bartender and his mother cleaned hotel rooms and stocked shelves at Kmart. From there his rise to a presidential contender is nothing less than meteoric.

In 1996, while attending law school he joined the presidential campaign of Bob Dole. His speeches to volunteers and supporters quickly got him noticed by the political movers and shakers in Florida.

“He told me his parents came from Cuba and he wanted to pay back all that was given to him,” Miami mayor Rebeca Sosa remembers. “I stopped what I was doing and invited him inside for coffee. The next day we were knocking on doors together.”

A year after meeting Sosa, Rubio ran for the Florida House of Representatives, where he placed second in the Republican primary before eking out a 64-vote victory in the run-off election. Just nine months later he was tapped for majority whip. Two years after that he was majority leader. At the time he looked so young that the Lieutenant Governor thought he was an aide and ordered him to make copies one day.

After building a reputation as the “tax cut king,” based on his plan to essentially eliminate state property taxes, Rubio decided to run for the Senate against Florida’s popular Republican governor, Charlie Crist.According to POLITICO, Rubio’s early backers called themselves the Three Percent Club “because that’s where the ambitious young Republican was polling when he began running.”  And things didn’t look good. Early polls suggested that Crist would cruise to the nomination. He received the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s endorsement the day he entered the race, he raised a state-record $4.3 million in one quarter (Rubio raised a relatively paltry $340,000) and outgoing Senator Mel Martinez timed his retirement specifically to benefit Crist.

Things looked so bleak that media began speculating that Rubio would be forced to bow out and run for a lesser post, like attorney general, instead. His campaign manager and chief fundraiser even quit.

But he pulled it out, going on to become one of the most prolific policy thinkers in an otherwise staid Senate.

Now, five years later, Rubio faces similarly long odds in his race for the White House. While that may work against some, Rubio relishes it.

“Yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday,” Rubio said of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who announced her candidacy on Sunday and is the odds on favorite to win.

“The time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American century,” he continued.

The new American century will be defined by defending an historic promise: The American Dream. As the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has lived the dream. Through hard work and determination his parents lifted themselves up by their bootstraps, allowing their son the opportunity to go to college, earn a law degree, work for a well-respected law firm, and soar to political heights, all before the age of 45. It’s a trajectory that he doesn’t want reserved for the select few who are born into privilege.

“My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream,” Rubio said. “But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving the dream is still possible.”

One of the groups Rubio specifically mentioned were young adults, whom he said have been “unable to start a career, a business or a family, because they owe thousands in student loans for degrees that did not lead to jobs.”

For the American Dream to be restored, for a generation of young adults to succeed, we need new thinking and new ideas. Rubio is one of a handful of Republican candidates who are offering something new and something different. Can Democrats say the same? Can Hillary?