November 2, 2010
"WE'RE CALLING IT FOR YOU."
At exactly eight p. m. eastern time, Brendan Farrington, an Associated Press reporter, turned to me and spoke those words.
Seconds later, the AP report flashed simultaneously on multiple television screens. Fox News called the election as well, confirming the consensus that I would be the new senator from Florida. After all these years of watching elections, it felt a little surreal to see my name with the words "projected winner" underneath my picture. But there it was right in front of me: "Projected Winner: Marco Rubio."
The next few minutes were a blur. I shook some hands. I kissed my wife, Jeanette, and was whisked away to a separate room to field phone calls. The entire day — the entire two years of my life before that night — culminated in a flurry of congratulations, handshakes and hugs. In the midst of the celebration, I felt a tug on my jacket and saw my eight- year- old daughter, Daniella, looking up at me. "Daddy, did you win?" she asked. "Yeah, I won," I answered. "No one told me," she complained as I bent to hold her in my arms.
My family later told me I had seemed like someone else. The man bounding up the steps to the stage, grinning and waving from the podium, was attentive and expansive. That man, the gregarious public man, didn't appear in their company very often. He didn't live at our house.
The husband, father and brother they knew had been a remote figure in their lives over the last two years, a tired and distracted candidate who came home only to seek relief from the pressures of a demanding campaign. The perfect strangers whose votes I hoped to earn, who shook my hand and told me about their lives, got the best part of me. My family got what I had left, which wasn't much. In the intimacy of family life, I was quiet and withdrawn, and resisted attempts to pull me into conversations about the campaign, although my mind rarely concentrated on anything else.
I had imagined election night many times during the campaign, on good days and harder ones. I had pictured all of it: the people, the place, the sounds, the shared feelings of pride, relief, exhilaration. Even on days when I did not believe it would happen, on a long drive home from a fund- raiser where we had collected a few hundred dollars or after another poll had me thirty points behind the sitting governor of my own party, I would envision this night for encouragement. I would put on my iPod earphones, listen to my guilty pleasure, hip-hop, close my eyes and see it. And here it was, at last, no more vivid in reality than it had been in my imagination.
We were at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. I had grown up less than two miles from the Mediterranean-style landmark nestled between large banyan trees and lush golf courses. We live a short drive from it today.
The Biltmore had once boasted the world's largest swimming pool. The hotel had been the tallest structure in Florida when it opened in 1926, and in its long and colorful history it has welcomed as guests royalty and movie stars, politicians and mobsters. A famous gangster had been murdered there.
My high school friends and I had snuck onto the resort's golf course at night; its gazebos offered the perfect hiding spot for underage beer drinking. When I practiced law, I would meet clients for breakfast or lunch in its ground-floor café. As a city commissioner and later a state legislator, I attended dozens of fund- raisers and other political events in its suites and ballrooms. And in November of 2006, as the incoming speaker of the Florida House, I had waited for election results in there. Jeanette and I had been married two blocks from the Biltmore and had spent our wedding night in a room on the seventh floor. There isn't another place in the world I would rather have held what I expected would be my victory celebration.
I had good reason to be confident. Every recent public poll confirmed that I held a commanding lead. Our own tracking polls offered as good or better news. The Republican turnout in absentee ballots and early voting had given me a comfortable cushion. But as the day progressed, I couldn't shake the uneasy feeling the race would be closer than expected and I might end up on the wrong side of a historic upset.
In the open- air courtyard on the west side of the hotel, workers set up an elevated stage and placed a podium in the center, in front of a row of American and Florida state flags. Family, friends, supporters and spectators congregated in the courtyard throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Behind them stood a large riser for television cameras and media crews from around the country and the world, providing an unrestricted view of the podium where I would deliver my speech.
On the ground floor beneath the ballroom, campaign staff gathered in an improvised war room. They stared at laptops and television screens, worked their phones and chatted nervously about the weather and turnout in this or that county.
Around half past six in the evening, my twenty- four-year-old nephew Orlando, or Landy as we call him, picked us up in a rented minivan and drove us to the Biltmore. As soon as we arrived I was briskly escorted to the war room, where aides were still sitting in front of their laptops and holding their phones, waiting for news of final turnout numbers. Numerous televisions sat in the middle of the room tuned to the broadcast and cable networks that would soon begin reporting election results. Most polls in Florida close at seven p. m. eastern time, except in the Panhandle, which is in the central time zone. The polls there close an hour later, so the media refrains from projecting winners until then.
A little before eight o'clock, Brendan Farrington took a phone call. I knew from the look on his face it was important. Over a year earlier, Brendan had traveled with me on a campaign swing through the Panhandle. We were halfway through the first day's drive when a source called to tell him I was about to drop out of the Senate race.
Excerpted from An American Son by Marco Rubio by arrangement with Sentinel Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright 2012 by Marco Rubio.