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Marco Rubio Waits for His Moment

When Marco Rubio launched his presidential campaign Monday evening in Miami, it’s a safe bet the speech made a lot of Republicans remember why they dubbed him presidential material.

Nobody in the GOP can spin a yarn like the freshman Senator from Florida. Rubio’s bootstrap narrative, rhetorical flourishes and emphasis on American exceptionalism have made him one of the few national figures capable of bridging the chasms between the party’s grassroots base, billionaire donors and the Washington establishment.

These gifts were on display in Rubio's announcement speech, which framed the 2016 presidential election as a clash between leaders "stuck in the 2oth century" and those looking toward the future.

"Yesterday is over, and we are never going back" he told supporters. "We must change the decisions we are making by changing the people who are making them."

The question is whether now is Rubio’s time. For much of the past two years, it hasn’t looked that way.

Rubio, 43, was a conservative sensation in 2013 when he joined a bipartisan group of Senators to craft a rewrite of U.S. immigration laws. (TIME put him on the cover, anointing him “The Republican Savior.”) Rubio became the face of the GOP effort to rebrand itself with Hispanics in the wake of an election in which they got clobbered in the contest for the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, winning just 27% of the Latino vote.

The gamble backfired. Comprehensive immigration reform collapsed amid a revolt from conservatives, who were incensed by a deal they decried as “amnesty.” And Rubio, whose upset Senate victory in 2010 was driven by Tea Party activists, was left to labor offstage as his presidential rivals vacuumed up money and hype.

His comeback strategy was simple. Rubio adopted an intentionally low profile as he repaired his relationship with the party base. In Washington he focused his efforts on foreign policy, returning to his roots as one of the Senate’s pre-eminent hawks. And he quietly wooed bigwig donors in small meetings and private conferences, nurturing a small yet loyal cadre of backers.

Rubio’s plunge into the 2016 pool will make a splash. But don’t be surprised if he soon returns to the low-profile approach on the campaign trail. There will be visits to early states and countless meetings with donors, but Rubio doesn’t expect to rocket to the front of the primary pack anytime soon. A protégé of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Rubio can’t match the fundraising prowess of the son and brother of Presidents. (His jab at Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton Monday as "a leader from yesterday" appeared to be a shot at Bush as well.) Nor can he squash Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s surge in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Instead Rubio’s path to the party’s nomination relies on running a lean, upbeat campaign that blooms late, advisers say. At this stage, being a lot of voters' second choice can be a first-rate strategy. The campaign hopes the base never warms to Bush, its romance with Walker proves fleeting and the social-conservative vote is divvied up between the various candidates vying for it. Then Rubio’s lean campaign operation will expand rapidly, and he can capitalize on his personal magnetism through the platform provided by the presidential debates. Rubio aides point to the roller-coaster GOP primary in 2012 as evidence that strategy can work.

Rubio has never lost an election, and his gifts as a candidate are easy to spot. In a race dominated by scuffed dynasties, he offers optimism and freshness: a youthful face who can connect with new constituencies by speaking Spanish, talking football and quoting rappers. In a party of aging white guys, a 43-year-old Hispanic who hails from a top swing state carries certain benefits.

The son of Cuban refugees will lean heavily on his biography. Rubio's mother made a living as a hotel maid; his dad worked as a bartender. Their son called the journey from serving drinks in the back of the room to announcing a presidential campaign at the front of one "the essence of the American dream."

His announcement at Miami’s Freedom Tower, the so-called Ellis Island for thousands of Cuban refugees — “a symbol of our nation’s identity as a land of opportunity," Rubio said — highlights the role that his personal narrative will play in his pitch. And Rubio’s campaign will rely on his charisma: polls show his approval ratings among the highest in the party.

This strategy is a proven winner at the presidential level, but perhaps not in a way that Rubio’s backers are eager to point out. As a freshman Senator with a minority background, a compelling personal story and dazzling oratorical chops, Rubio is the closest thing in the Republican Party to Barack Obama. At this time in 2007, Obama was an underdog, polling well behind the Clinton juggernaut. His victory illustrates the viability of Rubio’s strategy.

At the same time, the GOP has spent the past seven years decrying Obama as a nice guy with a light résumé who proved to be out of his depth in the Oval Office. The challenge for Rubio will be to bottle Obama’s campaign magic without reminding them too much of the man he's seeking to succeed.

Marco Rubio's Life in Pictures

Marco Rubio and his father outside his parents first home in Miami, Fla., 1972.
Marco Rubio and his father outside his parents first home in Miami, Fla., 1972.Courtesy Senator Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio and his father outside his parents first home in Miami, Fla., 1972.
Marco Rubio in 6th grade.
Marco Rubio during the Southern Nevada youth football conference, Yesco Cavaliers in Las Vegas, Nev., 1982
High school photograph of Marco Rubio from his 1989 yearbook.
South Miami Senior High yearbook photo of Marco Rubio in 1989.
From right Marco Rubio with his mother and sister Veronica during his graduation from the University of Miami law school in 1996. Veronica graduated from Florida international university bachelor’s degree.
Marco Rubio with his wife, Jeanette and his parents on his wedding day on Oct. 17, 1998.
Jeanette Rubio and Marco Rubio holding their youngest child Amanda Rubio in 2000.
Then representative Marco Rubio talks with a colleague during House session on April 1, 2004, in Tallahassee, Fla. At age 32, Rubio was one of the youngest legislators.
Marco Rubio greets Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on his way to being sworn in as the new speaker of the Florida House on Nov. 21, 2006, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Vice President Joe Biden swears in Senator Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate, on Jan. 5, 2010, in Washington, D.C. as his wife, Jeanette Rubio looks on.
Marco Rubio with his son, Anthony Rubio, father, Mario Rubio and daughter Amanda Rubio as he signs election documents officially qualifying him as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate on April 27, 2010 in Miami, Fla.
From left, Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek greet each other before the start of their debate at the studios of WESH-TV in Winter Park, Fla., on Oct. 26, 2010.
Then Florida Republican U.S. Senate nominee Marco Rubio celebrates with his family after winning the election on Nov. 2, 2010, in Coral Gables, Fla.
Marco Rubio and his sons Anthony, 5, right, and Dominic, 3, make their way to a swearing in ceremony for the 112th Congress in the Old Senate Chamber on Jan. 5, 2011.
Courtesy Senator Marco Rubio Senator Marco Rubio during a visit to the El Paso sector of the United States/Mexico border on Nov. 4, 2011.
Senator Marco Rubio Book Signing at Books And Books
Former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks with Senator Marco Rubio while flying from Pensacola to Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 27, 2012.
Senator Marco Rubio listens to a question alongside Senator John McCain, Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Robert Menendez and Senator Dick Durbin during a press conference on an agreement for principles on comprehensive immigration reform framework at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 28, 2013.
Marco Rubio and his father outside his parents first home in Miami, Fla., 1972.
Courtesy Senator Marco Rubio
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