Marco Rubio dreams of a Hillary - and Jeb - knockout

Rubio badges Image copyright Reuters

On Monday night, Marco Rubio was selling the Marco Rubio story - and the audience was lining up to buy it.

A crowd of around a thousand people gathered hours before the evening speech to pack into a central hall of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, a newspaper-building-turned-art-museum that served as a government processing facility for Cuban refugees fleeing the Castro regime in the 1960s.

"I love his passion for our country and how relatable he is," says Kelly Steele, who - clad in red-white-and-blue Marco Rubio shirt and sunglasses - arrived four hours before the speech to assure she had a seat in the hall.

"I really feel like it's time for some fresh new ideas and some fresh blood."

It was a decidedly smaller venue than those selected by the first two Republicans to announce their candidacies - Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz - but the symbolism for Mr Rubio was readily apparent.

Image caption Kelly Steele with a friend
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rubio took extended applause

During his speech, the 43-year-old Florida senator made repeated references to his working-class background as the son of Cuban refugees, who put himself through college thanks to student loans and worked his way up the political ladder as a local city politician then a state legislator.

He used his personal story as a pivot to show how he identified with the struggles of today's working families, whom he says are put at risk by the policies of leaders with ideas "stuck in the 20th Century".

"My parents achieved what came to be know as the American Dream," he said.

"But now too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible - hardworking families living paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected expense away from disaster."

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Image caption Rubio fans began queuing early

He added that massive student loan debt and "more taxes, more regulation and more government" were to blame.

Mr Rubio appears ready to hitch his campaign to the feeling among many Americans that while the economy has rebounded from the depths of the economic recession of 2008, only the fortunate few at the top are reaping the benefits.

He's not the only politician to feel that particular surge in the pulse of the US electorate, however. Just one day prior, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched on similar themes in the video launching her campaign.

"Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favour of those at the top," she said. "Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion."

Mr Rubio made direct reference to his would-be Democratic competitor's recent announcement.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Freedom Tower, Miami
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rubio supporter's badge

"Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday," he said. "Yesterday is over, and we are never going back."

Of course that last line could be prove equally effective against a more immediate opponent, as Mr Rubio will likely have to overcome former Florida Governor Jeb Bush - a fellow Miami resident and former political ally with a political lineage that surpasses even Mrs Clinton's.

Part of the beauty of Mr Rubio's old-versus-new rhetoric is that he can rail against Mrs Clinton while also landing blows on the man he could battle as the establishment's choice for the Republican nomination.

"My candidacy might seem improbably to those watching abroad," Mr Rubio said.

"In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and powerful. But I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rubio has his former mentor Bush in his sights

It's hard not to see this as a veiled reference to a man who is grandson of a senator, son of one president and brother of another.

Privileged opponents aren't the only obstacle on Mr Rubio's path to the presidency, however.

Many Republican activists view Mr Rubio as a grass-roots Tea Party darling turned heretic, thanks to his sponsorship of ill-fated 2013 Republican immigration reform legislation that included a path to permanent residency for the millions of undocumented workers currently living in the US.

It was Mr Rubio's opportunity to have a signature achievement - and ended up being a singular disaster, as the party's rank-and-file revolted. Mr Rubio eventually renounced his own plan - and immigration reform merited barely a mention in Monday night's speech.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Migration from Central America has been a major political issue

Instead there were the obligatory red meat references to foreign policy - "when America fails to lead, global chaos inevitably follows" - and talk of single mothers, students and janitors struggling to make ends meet.

"If their American dreams become impossible, we will have become just another country," he said. "But if they succeed, the 21st Century will be come another American Century."

After the speech, as the crowd filed out of the building and reporters hustled to get their reaction, talk centred on the strength and passion of Mr Rubio's personal tale.

"I think Marco has a great message," says Deborah Cox-Roush, who travelled from Orlando, Florida, to hear the senator speak. "The Republican Party needs a torch-bearer. People want hope. They want positive. He believes that we've got to have a new century, and I think America's looking for that."

Mr Rubio, who's giving up a Senate re-election bid to focus on this presidential campaign, must hope that she's right.

Republicans in (and out) of the presidential race