It Was Rubio’s Tuesday
The most important freshman senator.
Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
At 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 24, Marco Rubio sat in a nondescript classroom at the University of South Florida, seemingly staring miles beyond the wall in front of him. The CNN debate, the fifth between the three Senate candidates from Florida and the first to be broadcast nationally, would begin before a live audience in half an hour. Rubio was the picture of concentration, like a professional athlete before a big game—his jaw clenched, his head bobbing in rhythm to the music coming from the white headphones attached to his iPod. Some research suggests that classical music can stimulate higher brain function and aid concentration. But the thumping bass, audible from my seat about 10 feet away, suggested Rubio wasn’t listening to Joseph Haydn.
After 20 minutes, the candidate was summoned to the stage. He removed the headphones and left his iPod on the table. I asked two of Rubio’s top aides—Albert Martinez, who handled communications for Rubio during his rise in Florida politics and served as a consultant on the Senate race, and Alex Burgos, the communications director on the Senate campaign—what Rubio listened to in order to get himself in the right frame of mind for such a big moment. Burgos guessed it was probably Tupac. Martinez thought maybe NWA. Rubio, 39, like so many men his age, is a closet fan of gangsta rap.
Martinez picked up the iPod, glanced at the last tune played, and shook his head. “I don’t believe this,” he said, laughing. It wasn’t gangsta rap, but club music. Rubio, who had spent three hours in debate prep the previous afternoon, had been gathering his final pre-debate thoughts to “Sexy Bitch,” by French DJ David Guetta and rapper Akon.
Judging by his performance, it worked. Rubio’s team had anticipated that Governor Charlie Crist, trailing in the polls, would come after him hard. And though Crist started the debate sticking to substance, he seemed to lose his cool with just a few minutes remaining. The tanned governor sputtered out a long and incoherent attack on Rubio and his use of a Republican party credit card earlier in the decade. Rubio had prepared a careful response—one that would have him briefly expressing disappointment that Crist was once again resorting to “personal attacks” while refusing to talk about debt and deficits, the issues voters cared about most.
But as he listened to Crist’s bizarre rant, Rubio had another thought. He looked at Crist with a mixture of amusement and pity. “I’ve never had a heckler at the debate,” he said. “I’ve always had them in the audience.”
The audience erupted with laughter, then applause. With two lines, Rubio had neutralized the attack and reduced the sitting governor to a crazy man in a crowd.
Two days later, Rubio walked to the end of the Continental terminal at Miami International Airport for a morning flight to Orlando. Dressed casually in an untucked navy blue oxford, dark blue jeans, and black shoes, he showed no sign of nervousness just hours before the sixth and final three-way debate of the race.
Rubio took a seat at the gate next to his wife, Jeanette, a stunning former Miami Dolphins cheerleader who looks like she just walked off the field despite having given birth to four kids in the last ten years. She filled him in on news from that morning. Her car had been broken into at the kids’ school—a window smashed by someone who had seen her purse on the front seat. She was annoyed at the inconvenience but took delight in having emptied the inexpensive purse moments before it was stolen. Rubio spoke on the phone with the mechanic, who seemed to have no idea that he was talking to Florida’s next senator and a man conservatives are already talking about as presidential material. A new window for the car would take three weeks because it had to be shipped from overseas. Oh well.
Rubio turned his attention to more important matters. “Do you know if there’s a Men’s Wearhouse near our hotel?” he asked his body guy, Orlando “Landi” Cicilia. Rubio’s carry-on contained two suits he had bought at the discount clothier, and with the enthusiasm of a lottery winner he explained that the store would press any suits purchased there at no charge. He dropped his voice an octave. “You’re going to like the way you look,” he said, cracking himself up. “I guarantee it.”
Six hours later, Rubio was pacing in a small conference room at WESH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Orlando. His top advisers were seated around a small table, occasionally lobbing questions at the candidate.
His wife spoke up. “It’s your last debate. How do you feel?”
“I feel least nervous, which is probably not a good thing,” he said.
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