NPR NATIONAL
9:15 am
Thu November 11, 2010

Sen. Rubio: "Tea Party poster boy" or GOP insider?

NPR – Real | Windows | MP3

One of the stars of the Senate's incoming freshman class which includes at least 12 new Republicans is Florida's Marco Rubio.

He's young, charismatic, good-looking and Hispanic. He's become one of the national faces of the Tea Party movement. But he's also a career politician and a former leader of Florida's Republican establishment.

As he prepares to take his Senate seat, the question many are asking is: Which Marco Rubio will show up?

A Florida Insider

Long before his name became a cable news buzzword, Rubio was well-known in Florida. He spent nine years in the Florida House the last two as speaker. He was and is a Republican leader, with close ties to an important political dynasty.

Florida's popular former governor, Jeb Bush, has long been one of Rubio's political mentors and friends. At Rubio's victory rally on election night, he sounded almost like a father.

"I'm so proud of his enthusiasm," Bush said. "I'm so proud of his eloquence. And I'm so proud that he will be a part of a next generation of leaders that will restore America."

As legislator, state House speaker and now U.S. senator, Rubio represents Florida's Republican political establishment. There was a time, though after he announced his candidacy for the Senate that he found himself a political outsider.

A Tea Party Welcome

Rubio was in a primary race against the state's popular governor, Charlie Crist. Crist had the support of the state and national party, and was beating Rubio at fundraising 13-1.

But as Rubio campaigned across the state, there was one group that was always willing to listen and to contribute to his campaign: Florida's emerging Tea Party. Eventually, other Republicans in Florida, and across the nation, caught up with that Tea Party support.

In speeches and interviews, Rubio doesn't identify himself as a member of the Tea Party. But his central theme, he says, is at the core of that movement.

"That Washington is broken because it fails; that both parties are to blame. We have these monumental issues that have generational implications," he says. "And that no one is confronting them and facing them."

'More To The Package'

Steve Geller is one of those in Florida who has trouble squaring the Tea Party hero with the legislative insider he worked with in Tallahassee. "I don't think Marco is the senator from the Tea Party," he says. "I think Marco was the right guy in the right place at the right time."

Geller was a Democratic leader in the Florida Senate when Rubio was House speaker. Geller says Rubio oversaw increases in state spending and took home funding for pet projects like every speaker does.

As to what he'll be like in the U.S. Senate, Geller says, he has no idea.

"Historically, he is more of a negotiator than a bomb-thrower," Geller says. "Historically, he is not the poster boy for the Tea Party. But he was the poster boy for the Tea Party. The question is: Was this an area of mutual accommodation for both of them, or has he drank the Kool-Aid?"

It may be, at least for now, more of a question of style than of substance. Rubio has signed on, though, to Sen. Jim DeMint's push to ban earmarks a Tea Party stance that may put Rubio at odds with the Republican leadership in the Senate.

Even so, Ana Navarro, a Republican political consultant and longtime Rubio friend, says she thinks there's a big difference between Rubio and Rand Paul, a Tea Party proponent and Kentucky's new Republican senator.

Rubio, she says, isn't a novice who rode the Tea Party into power. The Tea Party movement helped, she says, "but Marco Rubio is a Republican. And what I expect is for him to work within that framework. And he also was elected because of his experience as a Republican, as a legislator. There's a lot more to the package."

Changing The GOP

As a Republican, though, Rubio has a born-again quality. He's said repeatedly that, in the election results, voters were not embracing the GOP. In this Congress, Rubio says, Republicans have to be different.

"This is a party that ... not so long ago in the last decade ran on a certain set of principles and values and ideas, and within 10 years of being in the majority became indistinguishable from the Democrats they had replaced," he says. "That cannot happen again. If it happens again, we will find ourselves on the other end of the pendulum come the next election cycle. It's as simple as that."

As to how true he'll be able to stay to those Tea Party principles once he's in the Senate, even Rubio sounds uncertain.

On election night, he said he knows Washington is a place that changes people, so they forget why they ran for office. To his supporters, he said, "I ask for your prayers for me and my family, that we will not change."

SOURCE: NPR