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The metoric rise and crushing fall of GOP golden boy Marco Rubio

After emerging as young conservative star, Florida senator drops campaign with parting shot at rival Trump

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a campaign rally at the Rohan Recreation Center on March 13, 2016, in The Villages, Florida. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images/AFP)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a campaign rally at the Rohan Recreation Center on March 13, 2016, in The Villages, Florida. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — When he announced his presidential candidacy last year, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said some people were urging him to hold off, but he simply could not.

“I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as president,” Rubio said, portraying himself as a young and fresh new face for the Republican Party.

That was in April, two months before Donald Trump entered the race.

Now, it is all over for Rubio, who did poorly throughout the primary voting season and ultimately could not even win in his home state, falling Tuesday to the Trump juggernaut.

“After tonight, it is clear that while we are on the right side, this year we will not be on the winning side,” Rubio told supporters as he suspended his campaign.

“I ask the American people — do not give into the fear, do not give into the frustration,” he said, taking a parting shot at the frontrunner.

“The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party — they’re going to leave us a fractured nation,” he said.

Rubio, 44, was the polar opposite of the billionaire Trump.

Republican presidential candidates (from left) Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Gov. John Kasich before the start of the Republican presidential debate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, on Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP/Wilfredo Lee)
Republican presidential candidates (from left) Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Gov. John Kasich before the start of the Republican presidential debate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, on Thursday, March 10, 2016. (AP/Wilfredo Lee)

The son of poor Cuban immigrants, Rubio pledged to usher in a “new American century” — a tweak to the “morning in America” slogan of his political idol, Ronald Reagan — with a message that was conservative but optimistic.

Rubio was not just a telegenic young overachiever.

As he prepared his candidacy in 2013 and 2014, the first-term US senator worked hard to gain stature, giving myriad speeches on defense, the welfare state, family issues and foreign affairs.

He would address the Senate and make the rounds of the Washington think tanks with what his top-notch communications people routinely called major policy addresses.

To hear Rubio tell it, he was the key to renewing Republican political thinking.

Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, left, is joined by his wife Jeanette and their children, from left, Dominic, Anthony, Amanda, and Daniella, at a campaign event at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Derry, New Hampshire. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, left, is joined by his wife Jeanette and their children, from left, Dominic, Anthony, Amanda, and Daniella, at a campaign event at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Derry, New Hampshire. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

But 2016 has turned out to be the year of the political outsider, a time for candidates who do not smack of politics as usual — not senators and governors.

A recurring theme of the Rubio candidacy was the story of his parents, a hotel bartender and a cleaning lady in Miami.

Through sheer hard work, albeit without getting rich, they achieved their American dream: raising a family, owning their own home and setting their kids up for an even better future.

“I am the son of immigrants, exiles from a troubled country. They gave me everything it was in their power to give. And I am proof their lives mattered, their existence had a purpose,” Rubio wrote in his 2012 memoir “An American Son.”

However else he may describe himself, Rubio is indeed a product of the establishment, spending much of his adult life in politics.

Just two years after earning a law degree, he was elected in 1998 to the West Miami City Commission. A year later, it was Florida’s House of Representatives, where he rose to become speaker from 2006 to 2008, just as Jeb Bush was winding down his term as governor.

Campaign volunteers cheer and take photographs of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) while he visits at his campaign headquarters February 8, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Campaign volunteers cheer and take photographs of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) while he visits at his campaign headquarters February 8, 2016 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

In 2011, Rubio began his term in the Senate.

He won that seat by challenging Florida’s then Republican governor Charlie Crist, who had the support of the party hierarchy.

Rubio likes to depict that race as a sort of David and Goliath showdown. Rubio became more and more well-known and ended up eclipsing Crist, who ran as an independent.

Rubio won the Senate seat, and emerged as a young star of the ultraconservative Tea Party movement.

On his arrival in Washington, conservatives traumatized by the election of President Barack Obama believed they had found their savior.

Conservative news outlets positively drooled over Rubio. He was only in his 40s, spoke Spanish, went to mass and liked rap music, but still did not undermine any core conservative values on issues such as abortion, gay marriage or opposition to the Castro regime in Cuba.

He was an eloquent — albeit somewhat mechanical — public speaker. Rubio was perfect for lifting the party’s fortunes among Hispanic voters.

But his Tea Party support plunged in 2013 after he helped craft comprehensive immigration reform that would have legalized millions of undocumented migrants.

Running for president was to be Rubio’s redemption. As the months went by, his polling numbers rose, and he finished third in the Iowa caucuses in February in a crowded Republican field. Rubio sat well with both evangelical conservatives and more centrist Republicans.

When Bush pulled out of the presidential race, the party establishment placed its hope in Rubio.

After subsequent primaries, as Trump scored win after win, Rubio pulled out all the stops and in a debate on February 25 launched an all-out attack against the real estate mogul, criticizing everything down to the size of his hands — a schoolboy taunt Rubio later said he regretted.

Rubio’s long, slow decline continued, but he refused to drop out, hoping for a last-gasp win in Florida. It did not happen.

Rubio has joked on the campaign trail that if his White House bid failed, he would love to be commissioner of the National Football League.

Might that be a good place to wait for the next election in 2020 to come around?

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