MIAMI — Senator Marco Rubio launched his presidential campaign with a soaring biographical speech about his family’s humble roots—and a message for Jeb Bush: Sorry, I’m not sorry.
“I have heard some suggest that I should step aside and wait my turn. But I cannot. Because I believe our very identity as an exceptional nation is at stake, and I can make a difference as president,” Rubio told the crowd Monday evening as he announced his run.
Although Bush’s name was never mentioned, the comparison between the two Florida politicians is hard to miss.
In fact, Rubio’s entire life story—which he will not be shy about telling over the coming months—stands in sharp contrast to Bush’s upbringing.
While Bush is the son and brother of presidents, as well as a member of one of America’s most storied political families, Rubio’s parents were a bartender and a maid.
“Most people who have ever lived were trapped by the circumstances of their birth, destined to live the life their parents had. But America is different. Here, we are the children and grandchildren of people who refused to accept this,” Rubio told the crowd at Miami’s Freedom Tower, built in the 1920s and now home to a memorial in honor of Cuban refugees.
“Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past. We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them,” he continued.
This was no renegade Senate campaign, like the one Rubio launched in 2009 to defeat Charlie Crist and vault himself onto the national stage.
In front of a capacity crowd of some 1,000 supporters, Rubio’s presidential campaign launch featured some of the glitz that his campaign six years ago lacked. Stars were projected onto the ceiling; tall American flags flanked ornate Corinthian columns from the front to the back of the room. More supporters, who couldn’t make it into the launch event, crowded around an outdoor screen set up across the street.
“In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful. 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 told the cheering crowd.
There are already tensions between the Bush and Rubio camps as they grapple over similar bases of support for donors and votes.
Last week, after two Florida associates of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson held a fundraiser in support of Rubio, Bush’s camp made it widely known that it feared the money would be ultimately used to attack Bush. It was a sign that Bush’s camp was anxiously settling into its GOP front-runner status.
In some ways it’s always been a complicated relationship, with some insisting that the former governor was a mentor to the now-senator. But those who know them both play down their personal closeness—or at least say it’s impossible to know.
“I don’t think even their most senior people understand that dynamic,” said a Florida political operative with ties to both camps.
Supporters, however, insisted that there was no direct competition between the two Floridians.
“Marco has always talked about American exceptionalism,” said Rubio supporter and former Florida House majority leader Adam Hasner. “I don’t think there is any direct attempt to distinguish himself from Jeb Bush. Marco is going to run his own campaign.“
For Rubio, the setting of his presidential launch was important.
“I chose to make this announcement at the Freedom Tower because it is a symbol of our nation’s identity as the land of opportunity,” Rubio said. “In this very room five decades ago, tens of thousands of Cuban exiles began their new lives in America. Their story is part of the larger story of the American miracle.”
The son-of-an-immigrant approach doesn’t always work with voters: Recall that Michael Dukakis, whose parents were both immigrants, lost big to Jeb Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush.
And in February, a Quinnipiac poll showed that Rubio trailed Bush among registered Republicans in Florida.
But Rubio sent a message with his campaign launch Monday evening: He’s not waiting. And if that muddles Jeb Bush’s chances, he doesn’t care.