Marco Rubio was out of politics -- having just given up his term-limited role as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives -- and he thought he liked it that way.
But then U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez decided not to run for re-election, and Rubio suddenly had an opening.
"All it took was the availability of a high office to expose how intensely my ambition still burned," Rubio wrote in his new memoir, "An American Son," released last month.
A higher office could become available this summer when Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, picks a running mate. Rubio ranks high on most vice-president short-lists because he is from Florida -- a critical swing state in the general election -- and he is the son of Cuban immigrants, which could help Romney capture the growing Latino vote. And it would give Rubio, a Republican star since he defeated popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010 for a U.S. Senate seat, a national platform should he choose to run for president.
In an interview with The State on Monday, Rubio declined to say if that burning ambition would lead him to accept the vice presidential nomination, saying he has "decided not to talk about it at all anymore." But he did say that while he is proud to be in the U.S. Senate, he's not proud of his original reasons for running.
"Looking back, I was surprised how much I wanted back into the game at the time," Rubio said. "It's something we all have to guard against."
Rubio will be in Columbia at 8 p.m. Thursday, signing copies of his book at the Books-a-Million at the Village at Sandhill shopping center -- an appearance he concedes will not help quash the speculation about his political ambitions. It will be Rubio's second trip to South Carolina since May, when he was the keynote speaker at the S.C. Republican Party's Silver Elephant dinner.
"Anytime anybody does anything political in South Carolina there is always speculation," he said, referring to South Carolina's status as an early primary state, the first-in-the-South that is often critical for Republicans to prove they can appeal to the party's base. "The reality of it is we're doing a Florida tour and then we're going up I-95 towards Washington because I have to be there by (July) 8th. So I-95 will take me through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia."
Rubio does have a Palmetto State connection in Jim DeMint, the junior Senator from South Carolina whose endorsements --and the fundraising that comes with those endorsements -- have vaulted several conservatives to the U.S. Senate. It was DeMint's "Senate Conservatives Fund" that helped Rubio stay in the race during the early days of his struggling campaign for Senate.
"I'm always grateful to the role so many South Carolinians played in my election," he said. "I mean, because Sen. DeMint didn't just endorse me. A lot of people in South Carolina donated to me because of him."
DeMint announced Monday that he was severing ties to the Senate Conservatives Fund, clearing the way for it to become a super political action committee. As a super PAC, the committee can raise -- and spend -- unlimited amounts of money to support candidates as long as it does not coordinate directly with the candidate or the candidate's campaign.
"I certainly feel that conservatives need to have that support that's very difficult to get. I mean, with all due respect, ... I don't think conservatives are treated well by the press, or accurately for that matter," Rubio said. "So I think this helps even the playing field somewhat. And I'm just glad Jim DeMint is out there doing it."
While Rubio said he won't talk about possibly becoming vice president, he hinted in his book that his political ambition has shifted somewhat because of his children. One afternoon while making fundraising calls for his U.S. Senate campaign, Rubio heard his home security system beep, indicating someone had opened the door. At first he thought it was his wife returning from the store. But when he went downstairs to check, he found his youngest son, Dominick, face down in the family's pool.
Rubio said he leaped into the pool to rescue his son, who "began to cry and vomit pool water."
"The campaign and its problems meant nothing to me that afternoon. I held my son in my arms -- my breathing, living son -- and I wanted nothing else," Rubio wrote.
Rubio would resume his campaign and its hectic schedule, but he said the experience changed him.
"We hurry on anyway and attend to our business because we need to matter," he said. "And we don't always realize that we already do."
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