Marco Rubio stood Monday in the grand hall of Miami’s Freedom Tower, the place where Cuban exiles were first welcomed into the United States, and declared himself the heir to their legacy as the newest candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
“I know my candidacy might seem improbable to some watching from abroad. After all, in many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful,” Rubio said. “But I live in an exceptional country. ... where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.”
Rubio, who rose from the obscure West Miami City Commission to the U.S. Senate in a mere dozen years, cast himself as a break from the past — a message pointed directly at his onetime mentor and likely Republican rival Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton, who unveiled her own presidential bid Sunday.
“Yesterday is over, and we are never going back,” Rubio said, without naming names. “You see, we Americans are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future. And before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America.
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“But we can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past,” said the 43-year-old Rubio. “We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them.”
He later made the crowd roar with a reference to leaders who “put us at a disadvantage by taxing, borrowing and regulating like it’s 1999.”
Rubio’s much-anticipated remarks Monday evening were no surprise — earlier in the day, he had revealed to political donors that he was going to run for president — but they established a theme for a campaign in which Rubio will tie his Cuban immigrant parents’ journey to his own swift political success, and promise those same opportunities to voters.
He delivered a speech thin on policy details but aspirational in its message, repeating the personal narrative he has effectively deployed since becoming the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
He even broke into Spanish to remember his late father. “He used to tell me all the time: “ En este país, ustedes van a poder lograr todas las cosas que nosotros no pudimos,” Rubio said. In this country, you will achieve all the things we never could.
To Rubio followers, the anecdotes were familiar. But on this day they were aimed at a different, national audience.
“Now, the time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American century,” he said.
Democrats characterized Rubio as a partisan who caved into conservative pressure on immigration and supports tired, ineffective ideas. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, called Rubio a “self-interested and opportunistic politician.”
“At every turn, Marco Rubio has pandered to the Republican base, throughout his whole career, instead of doing what’s best for his constituents and his country,” she said.
Rubio, who has lined up a series of national interviews, will hold fundraisers Thursday in New York and Boston, and campaign Friday in New Hampshire. He will return Tuesday to Washington for a Senate hearing on a possible deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Rubio’s Senate seat comes up for re-election next year, and he cannot be on the ballot for two federal offices at the same time. He had said repeatedly he wouldn’t seek another Senate term if he ran for president, though his re-election papers aren’t due until May 2016.
Republicans and Democrats have been recruiting Senate candidates, with Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter already campaigning. A potential GOP contender, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, is a close Rubio friend and was seated in a prominent spot on Monday’s stage.
Rubio has had little time to pass significant legislation on Capitol Hill, exposing him to criticism that — like President Barack Obama, some conservatives say — he’s too inexperienced for the White House. Rubio likes to note he is the former Florida House speaker, while Obama didn’t hold a leadership post as a state lawmaker.
But other Obama comparisons might be more favorable for Rubio. When Clinton’s weekend campaign launch threatened to overshadow Rubio’s Monday plans, his advisers called the timing fortuitous because it would create an old-versus-new contrast between the two candidates.
Rubio’s 20-minute speech began slowly, without introduction, timed to coincide precisely with television news schedules. “Wow, that’s a lot of cell phones,” Rubio quipped at the audience recording and photographing him. But he warmed up, even ad-libbing a well-received mention to the erosion of human rights in Cuba and Venezuela. He called on “modernizing” immigration laws, reforming higher education and repealing and replacing Obamacare.
When he wrapped up his speech, his wife, Jeanette, and their four young children — Amanda, Daniella, Anthony and Dominick — embraced him.
He spoke to a crowd of hundreds of supporters, including Sergio J. Sixto, a 61-year-old ex-political prisoner in Cuba who attended with his daughter Driena, 21, a student at Rubio’s politics class at Florida International University.
“He is going to be the next president of the United States,” Sergio Sixto said. “The only thing is he needs to be known. He is the most humble, nice, charismatic person.”
“He is trying to make this country a better country,” said Elsa Janulionis, 66, who was also born in Cuba. “He wants us to be the leader again.”
Outside the Freedom Tower, which is part of Miami Dade College, stood small groups of demonstrators. Some protested that Rubio backed away from comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. Others called him a “climate denier” for questioning the extent to which climate change is caused by humans.
For Rubio, Monday began at the Marriott Biscayne Bay, where he met over breakfast with financial backers and telephoned other donors reveal his plans. Sunday night, several hundred friends and family members gathered at the home of former Latin Builders Association President Bernie Navarro, who introduced Rubio as “the next president of the United States.”
Rubio, a first-term senator, will now try to break through the GOP field, where several candidates are vying for the same base of conservative voters. Already in the race are Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
No Republican, however, looms larger for Rubio than Bush, the former Florida governor. The prospect of their dueling candidacies has split Republican loyalists in the nation’s largest swing state, with much of the party establishment already choosing the older and more experienced Bush. Two of Miami’s three Cuban-American U.S. House members have endorsed him, and none attended Monday’s event.
Bush, the 62-year-old son and brother of two former presidents, announced in December that he would explore his own run — complicating Rubio’s plans, which had been laid out in deliberate fashion since he joined the Senate in 2010. But he kept them anyway, seeing an unsettled primary where he could emerge as a unifier of tea partiers, moderates and traditional conservatives. If he doesn’t, a national campaign brings little downside; he could still be positioned to run for governor in 2018 or for president in 2020 or 2024.
“I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot,” Rubio said. “Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as president.”