NEW CASTLE, N.H. – In a bustling ballroom alongside some of New Hampshire's most prominent Republican donors, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., never wanders far from his table. The Florida senator's dinner is getting cold a few feet away as party elders rush toward him. They grab his hands and pose for photographs at his side. And though Rubio graciously signs autographs, one state official notes there are no staffers taking names or compiling detailed lists of who's who among New Hampshire's elite – priceless information for when the presidential field widens and the hunt for dollars and votes grows more tenuous leading into 2016.
He might be a nationally known U.S. senator with well-known presidential ambitions, but Rubio still has a thing or two to learn about working a room, she observes.
It’s his relative newness to the scene that makes the charismatic Rubio such a wild card in the race for the White House. In what’s a wide open field of has-beens, wannabes, flamethrowers and fame-seekers, Rubio remains an unusual combination of political calculation and inexperience.
For now, it remains to be seen if he'll be able to woo back enough conservatives – turned off by the gamble he took on immigration reform – to have a real chance at his party's nomination. But the long line of college Republicans and New Hampshire political elites in the ballroom makes it clear that so far, the local GOP leaders are at least willing to hear him out.
They won't give him a free pass, though.
“What did he do before this?” wonders 80-year-old Suzanne Pope, a longtime GOP supporter.
It's a question Rubio will continue to face. But long before he was making the rounds in the home of the first-in-the-nation primary, Florida's junior senator served two years as Florida’s House speaker. There he gained valuable negotiating experience as he stiff-armed and horse-traded with Democrats. By the time he reached the U.S. Senate, Rubio’s political acumen earned him a spot on the much sought-after Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But are his skills honed sharply enough to earn him success as a presidential candidate?
Rubio, who will be 43 at the end of May, is well aware of where he stands in the Republican lineup. It’s why he’s quick to point out that although his name has only been on his Senate office door for four years, he's been an elected official for 14.
In politics, Rubio knows longevity is prized. It's why he's resting on his past to move steps ahead.
Even Democrats who served with him when he was Florida's House speaker recall he was more controlled and strategic than other local lawmakers angling for a shot at the national stage. Though many in his inner statehouse circle – like former Rep. David Rivera – became embroiled in scandal, Rubio appeared to stay above the fray.
“He was anything but heavy-handed,” says Dan Gelber, the former top House Democrat who worked closely with Rubio in Tallahassee. "He was extremely transparent."
Former Democratic state Rep. Jack Seiler says Rubio was the kind of guy who always had an open door – he would go out and have a beer with anyone who asked, but also knew when to go home.
“Tallahassee had a way of eating up a lot of people and a lot of families, like Washington does I suspect," Seiler says. "He always got his feet on the ground. I never saw Marco do anything dishonest or illegal or unethical. He played hardball, but he played fairly.”
Even back then, former colleagues say Rubio could captivate an audience when he spoke. Gelber glumly recalls how Rubio once outshone him during his final days as a lawmaker.
“I remember in our farewell speeches, my wife surprised me and showed up. I gave a very emotional speech," Gelber says. After Rubio took his turn, though, "I saw tears in my wife's eyes," Gelber says. "That's how good of a speaker he was."
By the time he hit D.C., Rubio's well-crafted stump speech – the same one he delivered during the 2012 Republican National Convention and other gatherings, such as the Conservative Political Action Conference – has made audiences swoon.
But there's also a sharper side to him.
It was Friday, April 18, 2008, in Tallahassee. The usually patient and strategic Rubio limited the Florida House floor debate on an education bill ahead of the Passover holiday and a gala for black lawmakers in an attempt to get through business and adjourn early. Democrats felt Rubio had cut off debate prematurely.
Using an obscure procedural maneuver, Democrats brought the Florida House to a halt by demanding that remaining bills be read aloud on the floor.
“Rubio was pretty ticked,” Seiler says.
In retaliation, Rubio ordered the sergeant at arms to call all 119 members of the House back to the floor. He then had them lock the doors. Within an hour, Rubio had ordered Internet and BlackBerry access to be shut down in the chamber so members were forced to sit and listen without distraction.
“We were in a standoff,” Gelber says. “He just stared at me for eight hours.”
In the U.S. Senate, Rubio's hardball has come with more subtlety.
Upon his arrival, Rubio's perceived ties to the tea party worried Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In an effort to appease Rubio and a crew of incoming freshmen, McConnell took a handful of them to Afghanistan. Not long after, Rubio earned appointments to both the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, each considered a reach for incoming members.
The not-inconsequential decision by McConnell to award the new senator with top committee picks has put Rubio’s fundamental ideological split with the conservative movement on display. It has also tipped Rubio's hand as a shrewd, ambitious politician hoping to beef up his resume for higher office.
And while he may have swung into the Senate on the coattails of the tea party, Rubio hasn't turned out to be the poster child for the movement that his fellow freshman, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has been.
Rubio has embraced the old guard Republicans' view of the world, often citing Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” mantra when ripping the Obama administration’s waffling strategies in Syria, Venezuela and Ukraine.
His committee assignments also buffer Rubio against potential charges that he lacks the worldly experience necessary to serve as commander in chief.
“I have been impressed with him from the day I met him,” says Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who serves with Rubio on the Foreign Relations Committee. “When he speaks, people listen. He talks logically, he doesn’t drone on and on like some of my colleagues do.”
Nothing, however, has defined Rubio's Senate career more than his ambition to pursue bipartisan immigration reform.
“I had a choice to make. I could either sit back and file a bunch of amendments and make statements, or I could actually try to influence what the solution looked like,” Rubio says.
The efforts won him praise from some, such as fellow pro-reform Republican John McCain.
“He did an outstanding job in those discussions we had for days and days and days,” the senator and former presidential nominee says. "He really stuck to his guns … he was the vital member to get us across the finish line.”
In the wake of an unsuccessful charm offensive on conservative media outlets promoting the now all-but-dead legislation, it appeared the calculating Rubio had tripped up.
But as the GOP increasingly acknowledges an electoral need to broaden its appeal, the road leads right back to Rubio.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has struggled with how to successfully serve as the ambassador for his party to Latino communities, a disparate group that's largely reluctant to embrace a party that has called for bigger border fences and "self-deportation." It was particularly true after the strong rebuke his signature policy proposal received.
Maneuvering around the side of his wide office desk, Rubio looks shorter and stouter than he does on television or from behind a podium. He pulls one of his most prized possessions from a drawer – a gold name tag encrypted with the words “Rubio Banquet Bartender.”
The way Rubio tells it, the keepsake was made in 2012 especially for him by a group of bartenders at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel, who were moved by his personal story – Rubio’s father served up martinis and beers for most of his life and his mother worked as a hotel maid.
“It’s kind of a reminder anytime I go to an event [at a fancy hotel] that my dad worked that job all those years so that I could do what I am doing now,” he says, running his fingers along the piece's etchings.
It's this story – and Rubio's ability to tell it – that keeps his star shining in a party that bills itself as the champion of economic freedom and guardian of the American dream.
But for all his natural gifts and strategy, there are still rough edges Rubio is seeking to smooth over. His super PAC has spent far more on strategists than it has on supporting up-and-coming candidates, the latter being the kind of patronage typically rewarded with loyalty later down the line.
Rubio’s naiveté also reveals itself in the way the junior senator has reached to build his credentials as a party visionary. Even as Congress is overcome by election-year paralysis, Rubio is rolling out sweeping plans to overhaul the country’s Medicare and Social Security programs, agenda items that are about as fraught with political land mines as nearly any other topic in Washington.
Back in New Hampshire, it’s Rubio’s personal story, not his policies, that has the broadest appeal. As he finds his rhythm, he begins to relax, and his left hand begins to move so frequently he almost looks like he's conducting the downbeat for an orchestra. When he gets to anecdotes about his parents, he knows he's in the home stretch. He slows down and takes dramatic pauses.
“Life was not always easy for them. I know that there were things they wanted to be or do, but those things became impossible for them,” he says.
In the audience, there is a collective sigh when Rubio tells the story of how his father, sick with cancer, got out of bed and got dressed the afternoon Rubio was poised to win the Republican Senate primary against then-sitting Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
“I think that night and nights like that were affirmations that they mattered. Their sacrifice was not in vain,” Rubio says.
Nancy Merritt, 74, immediately pops out of her dinner chair after the applause subsides. She meanders toward Rubio. Wearing a black velvet jacket and a diamond necklace, she approaches him, grabs his hand and delivers a message.
“I told him, 'I wish you’d run for president.’ He has good standards and values that represent what America was founded on,” she says. “He has come up through the ranks and to me there is no substitute for that. If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, so to speak, there is something that you miss.”