Back by the Science-Fiction section, at the end of the line, he was being referred to as “very visionary,” “very sincere” and “very smart.” At the front of the line people described him as “fantastic,” “bright” and “something to reckon with.” It was a friendly crowd.
Sporting wristbands that assured their placement in line, the people gathered at Barnes and Noble bookstore in Pensacola Tuesday had come to see a GOP posterboy—U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. The Florida politician swung through on his book signing tour, with speculation of his rounding out the Romney presidential ticket close on his heels.
Outside the bookstore’s front entrance, the senator’s bus hummed contently. Emblazoned on the side, Rubio’s young mug—a cross between a conservative cherub and a Latino-Donny Osmond—gazed across the parking lot begging the voting public to pinch his cheeks. Admirers paused to have their picture snapped while posing next to the bus.
Since embarking on his book tour—for his newly released “An American Son”—Rubio has attracted throngs of people to the signing events, which have the feel of an election-year circus. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s camp has hinted that the Republican-wonderboy may be a contender for the VP slot—he has good dimples, real good, and maybe an edge with Latino voters—but the senator has consistently deflected the subject.
“Oh, no, no one’s ever asked me that,” Rubio laughed, when a local reporter popped the vice-presidential question Tuesday night.
In a quick huddle with local media, the senator hit all the day’s high notes. He breezed over the subject of immigration (“I can’t ignore that issue, it’s all around me.”) and the economy (“It’s not growing.”) and the RESTORE Act (he supported the final version).
Rubio also tossed out some post-ruling GOP talking points on the recently upheld Affordable Care Act. Like most Republicans, the senator frames the health care overhaul as “a middle-class tax increase.”
“I respect the court, I respect the constitution—I don’t agree with their decision, but I respect it,” Rubio said, smiling cautiously. “In my opinion, Obamacare is a bad idea.”
Discussing politics and policies surrounded by children’s books seemed almost obscene. Besides, that wasn’t what the people lined up with wristbands wanted. They came for the dimples.
Many of the people in line held multiple copies of “An American Son” for the senator to sign. The extras, no doubt, would be given out as Christmas presents, or maybe sold on eBay in a few years if Rubio ascends the political ladder.
Clamoring in a cluster a little ways back in the line, a group of women began singing patriotic songs. They collectively gushed and blushed—like preteens dreaming of a boy band—while explaining that Rubio was the next big thing.
One of the signing women was thrust forward: “This is a lady that escaped from Cuba, she has a story to tell.”
Alina Franco Atwell smiled and recounted how she arrived in the U.S. in January of 1971. Her father had spent 12 years in a Cuban prison and other relatives had been sent to labor camps. Her family was fleeing Fidel Castro’s island.
The woman didn’t flinch when asked to square her personal experience with Rubio’s stance on immigration policy. She is not an immigrant, she explained, but rather a political refugee that became an American citizen.
“You earned it,” one of the other women told her.
“You did it the right way,” another said.
Rubio—the son of Cuban immigrants—used a similar line of reasoning until the Washington Post pointed out that his parents had arrived in the U.S. more than two years before Castro overtook the island. The senator’s stance on illegal immigration is softer-edged than the majority in his party, but he also supports notions such as Arizona’s controversial SB 1070. His consistent comment on the matter has boiled down to “it’s complicated.”
“I like his stance on protecting the young children because they’re here through no fault of their own,” Atwell said.
But the Cuban woman prefers not to get bogged down with the senator’s immigration views. It is, as the senator has said, a complicated issue and, besides, her friends were already neck-deep into their Fourth of July celebrations.
“I’m not only drawn to him because of the Cuban-connection, but for what he stands for,” she said. “I think people have to understand that things that are going on in this country are un-American.”
Farther back in the line, Lou Leitenburger waited with wristband number 00133 for his turn to meet the senator. It wouldn’t be the first time—Rubio won him over during a brief encounter a couple of years ago.
“Well, I met him at the airport,” Leitenburger said. “He was a nice man. A nice gentleman.”
The elderly man felt some connection to the senator due to the young politician’s Cuban descent. Rubio’s parents hailed from the island and the man had been stationed there prior to Castro and the subsequent U.S. embargo.
“I put two years down in Cuba, it’s a beautiful country,” the old man recalled. “They had rum, $2.25 a gallon—that was the best part.”