(CBS News) As Campaign 2012 plays out in coming months, we'll be talking to some of the election's key figures. And we begin this morning with Marco Rubio, the junior Senator from Florida. He's a rising star in the Republican Party, with a signature issue President Obama acted to pre-empt just this past Friday. Here's CBS News chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell:
Marco Rubio says, "I'm not going to be the vice-president."
He can deny it all he wants, but there's no denying that a lot of people think the Senator could be Mitt Romney's running-mate.
When asked by O'Donnell if, at age 41 and in his second year in the Senate, he thinks he is qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Rubio replied, "Well, look, I have a job now, and I certainly feel like I'm qualified to be in the United States Senate. Like anything you do in life, you learn. So certainly I feel that I'm better prepared to be in the Senate today than I was a year ago."
Maybe he's seen as too young for this election cycle. But in Marco Rubio, many conservatives, not to mention Tea Party supporters, have a new hero - one who is personable, seemingly unflappable, and could wind up helping to broaden the Republican base with Hispanic voters.
"You've been called the Tea Party Senator; first of all, do you like that name?" asked O'Donnell.
"I have no problem being associated with the Tea Party," Rubio said. "But I can only tell you what I stand for. And I think the things that I stand for, and I think the things the Republican Party should and does stand for, are very mainstream positions."
Those positions are strongly conservative, right down the line. Abortion rights? "I'm pro-life," he says. "I believe life begins at conception."
President Obama's Affordable Care Act? "I think it should be repealed and replaced."
Entitlement reform? "I think it's essential. I want to save Medicare. My mom's on Medicare."
Understanding Rubio requires a visit to West Miami, the heavily-Cuban immigrant community where he spent most of his childhood. He still lives there, in a modest house with his wife, Jeanette, and their four young children.
Rubio's parents came from Cuba to the U.S. in 1956. His mother's jobs ranged from hotel maid to Kmart stock clerk. His father struggled to find work his whole life.
"He wanted to own his own business, and [it] just never kind of worked out for him, ended up becoming a bartender," Rubio said. "And really, at some point in their lives, it became the purpose of their lives to just give their kids the chance to do all the things they wanted to do but couldn't do. I've always felt driven to do the things they couldn't."
But in high school and college, Rubio was less interested in studying . . . more interested in football.
"I wasn't a standout, but I enjoyed it," he said. "And I would've been in the NFL had it not been for my lack of size, speed and talent."
Finally, he buckled down and got a law degree. He married Jeanette Dousdebes, whom he met in college.
And then he jumped into politics, winning a seat on the West Miami city commission. One of his early victories: Getting trees planted on a street that had been left bare.
It's a sense of possibilities that he says he still carries, only now on a bigger stage.
"I'd love to feel again like I did that day when those trees were going in the ground, only this time we saved Medicare . . . only this time we balanced our budget . . . only this time we found a way to make our tax code normal."
He served in the Florida State House of Representatives, becoming one of the youngest Speakers ever.
But there were some missteps along the way. At one point, he claimed his parents fled Cuba AFTER Castro took over.
"I wish I would've known the date," he told O'Donnell. "I would've gotten it right. I would've said, 'They came before Castro.'"
"So you weren't trying to exaggerate your biography?"
"I don't know how - what that adds to the biography," Rubio said. "I mean - and maybe some in the media nationally that analyze this don't fully understand it. But here in Miami among Cuban exiles, the fact that they came in 1956 doesn't change anything for anyone."
And then there were the unwelcome headlines about his use of a Florida State Republican Party credit card to pay for personal expenses.
He paid the charges, and says it was all a careless mistake.
"And now I have to spend all my time explaining how I used the card instead of talking about public policy. So it's my fault, you know? And obviously I learned that lesson," he said. .
Then came the chance to run for U.S. Senate, which led to some interesting discussions at home with his wife, Jeanette, who told O'Donnell "I'm not a political person."
Rubio was up against Florida's popular governor Charlie Crist. But behind in money and in the polls, he convened a meeting at his house. He was strongly considering dropping out.
It was Jeanette who spoke up: "I didn't agree," she said. "You know, first of all, like he said, that's something that we don't teach our kids. Once we start something, you do it. He really wanted to do something, to make a difference. And so therefore once we got on that road, we're going to stick to it."
"I guess my question is, Why did you need your wife to tell you that? Why didn't you know that yourself?" asked O'Donnell.
"Well, because I was the one that was afraid," Rubio said.
He stayed in the race, portraying his opponent as too liberal - with help from a hug that Crist famously gave to President Obama in Florida. Rubio won.
Now he spends many weekdays in Washington, while his family is home in Miami.
"I'm used to it, but it's not easy," said Jeanette Rubio. "You know, it's not easy when I have to do things with the kids, activities, homework . . . "
"It's like being a single mom during the week," said O'Donnell.
"Yeah, it is. It's like being a single mom, it is."
"Thanks for making me feel good, guys!" Marco laughed.
But he does spend time with his family on weekends.
Their faith is an important part of their life. Rubio was born Catholic, but when his parents briefly moved to Las Vegas in 1979, they joined the Mormon Church.
"You were Mormon for three years, then you came back and were Catholic again - and now you go to a Baptist Church," said O' Donnell.
"Well, yeah, our church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. . . . I never stopped being a Catholic," he said, admitting they go to both Mass every Sunday and also regularly attend Christ Fellowship.
Rubio's story is about to get a lot more attention with a tour promoting his new autobiography.
As the son of Cuban immigrants he brings a unique voice to a heated debate within the Republican Party.
When asked if the GOP has a problem with courting Hispanic voters, Rubio said, "I think it has work to do."
On Friday, President Obama made that work harder - easing federal laws to allow young undocumented immigrants to stay in the country without facing deportation. The move largely undercut legislation that Rubio was planning to unveil.
Rubio has been walking a fine line on immigration; for example, his Tea Party affiliation and refusal to condemn Arizona's tough immigration law put him at odds with many Hispanic groups.
But Rubio says Hispanics are worried about more than just one issue.
"Americans of Hispanic descent do not wake up in the morning every day and talk about immigration for the next 18 hours," he said. "I mean, they have jobs, they worry about their family's economic future. They have to pay student loans. They have payroll to make if they have a small business. They're worried about paying their mortgage."
The latest polls show President Obama up by as much as 40 points over Romney among Hispanics - which clearly begs the question one more time:
"Are you being vetted by Mitt Romney's campaign?" O'Donnell asked.
"Well, I'm not going to discuss the process," he said. "And that shouldn't take it as a yes or a no."
"Would you like to be president some day?"
"I've never thought about wanting to be a specific job in politics," Rubio said.
"Come on," O' Donnell replied.
But then we visited Rubio's favorite West Miami bakery, and the folks there, who have served Marco Rubio plenty of pastries, seemed to have no doubt about where their favorite son might be headed one day.
"Do you think someday you'll send pastries to the White House?" O'Donnell asked.
"Oh, yeah, I know I will," the bakery employee replied. "Before I go, I know I will."
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