In his bid to unseat Crist, Rubio has also raised more than $11 million and counting. About $100,000 of that cash has come from political action committees, including the anti-tax Club for Growth, his largest individual donor. Then there are the big businesses he helped as speaker: Florida Crystals, State Farm, and a host of developers.

With the money and national exposure, Rubio's poll numbers soared throughout early 2010. By April, he'd sunk Crist into an almost 30-point hole among primary voters. On April 29, at a hastily called news conference in a St. Petersburg park, the governor abandoned the Republican Party.

It was another remarkable coup for Rubio. But in the months since, his star has dimmed.

Rubio wears number 46 for the South Miami High Cobras.
Rubio wears number 46 for the South Miami High Cobras.

The week before Crist's announcement, the IRS had opened a "preliminary" investigation into Rubio's use of the GOP-funded credit card — the same one he used to buy that $135 haircut and to fix the family van. Then, Jim Greer, GOP chairman during Rubio's time in Tallahassee, was arrested and charged with six felonies for allegedly diverting party money into a shell business. As Greer testifies to the feds and as Rubio's own records are scrutinized, it's likely more information will emerge about Rubio's questionable spending.

On June 14, another embarrassing lapse tainted Rubio's credentials as a financial reformer. Deutsche Bank filed a suit in Leon County to foreclose on a house he owned just outside Tallahassee with David Rivera — his loyal lieutenant in the House and now a candidate for U.S. Congress. The pair had missed five months of payments on the home, which they had bought for $135,000 in 2005.

The foreclosure was dropped a week later when Rubio and Rivera repaid $9,525 to the bank. Rubio says they had stopped paying over a dispute in interest rates.

For the past month, Rubio has traveled the state every week trying to reharness the energy that helped him topple Crist. He has turned again to the same themes that define his political life: escape from Cuba and belief in small government.

And he has raised even more money. He recently attended a massive New York fundraiser hosted by hedge fund manager Paul Singer the same night Congress passed new financial reforms. Plus he pulled in more than $4.5 million in the last quarter, four times Meek's fundraising.

It's a roasting June afternoon in suburban Orlando, and Rubio stops at a sprawling new Italian restaurant, where flat-screens alternate a World Cup match and a Fox News report. He strides confidently to the front of the room, stopping to pose for photos with supporters in anti-IRS T-shirts and "Abolish the Tax Code" hats. He isn't fazed by polls that show Crist has surged ahead five points.

"I was born a citizen of the single greatest nation in all of human history," he says. "It doesn't matter that your dad was a bartender and your mom was a stock clerk — you can still run for U.S. Senate." Then he pauses as if daunted by the possibilities: a Senate seat, an IRS indictment, a presidential nomination. "There's one question we all have to ask: Are we exceptional, or do we want to be like everyone else?"

Francisco Alvarado and Danielle Alvarez contributed reporting to this story.

Marco Rubio on the Issues

Abortion: Pro-life. Supports bill to require doctors to perform an ultrasound before an abortion.

Gay marriage: Opposes it.

Immigration: Supports Arizona’s immigration bill, opposed counting illegal immigrants in the U.S. Census.

Off-shore drilling: In favor of oil drilling off Florida coasts.

Stem cell research: Would ban taxpayer dollars to pay for stem cell research.

Supreme Court nominees: Opposed Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

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I found the following paragraph most interesting, especially the final sentence:  "On May 2, 2008, Rubio's last day as speaker, his voice cracked as he dedicated his time in the House to his parents. 'I've been distracted almost my entire life by this obsession to do all the things they couldn't do,' Rubio said. 'So if I look a little hyper or a little focused... I want you to know what's driving me. I want them to know that their lives mattered.'"  So, in effect, what he is saying is, "Mom, Dad, your lives are so inconsequential, that without my making a huge success of my life, your lives will really not have mattered much at all."  In psychology, this is known as a "messiah complex" - "you folks are lost without me."  The problem is, there was and is only one Messiah, and Marco Rubio ain't he.

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