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Marco Rubio’s personal finances: Is he 'just like us' or not?

Team Marco has turned an exposé by The New York Times to the campaign's advantage. It's counting on voters relating to Senator Rubio's struggles with money.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida and his wife, Jeanette, acknowledge the crowd after he announced that he will be running for the Republican presidential nomination, in Miami in this April file photo.

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Marco Rubio’s personal finances appear to have been a high-wire act much of his adult life.

Until recently, the Florida senator and top-tier Republican presidential contender was paying off big student loans. At one point Senator Rubio owned three houses, including one he just sold at a loss. And he has acknowledged cashing out a $68,000 retirement account – a move financial planners strongly discourage – in preparation for his presidential run and to pay for household items.

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What’s more, the buzzy New York Times article on Rubio’s finances revealed that after getting an $800,000 advance in 2012 to write a memoir, he made some big-ticket purchases, including an $80,000 boat.

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“A review of the Rubio family’s finances — including many new documents — reveals a series of decisions over the past 15 years that experts called imprudent: significant debts; a penchant to spend heavily on luxury items like the boat and the lease of a $50,000 2015 Audi Q7; a strikingly low savings rate, even when Mr. Rubio was earning large sums; and inattentive accounting that led to years of unpaid local government fees,” the Times reported.

The article details other eyebrow-raising financial practices, including Rubio’s use of a Florida GOP-issued credit card for personal expenses. He has since reimbursed the party.

Here’s the big question: Will voters see this son of working-class immigrants – who did not grow up wealthy like, say, Jeb Bush – and say, “He’s just like us! He started with nothing, he’s worked hard, and he deserves some luxuries.”

And they might add: “Who cares what The New York Times says? They’re just out to get him.”

Or will they say, “Yikes, this guy can’t manage money. Should he really be our next president?”

Rubio’s campaign is banking on the former reaction, and in fact, is fundraising on it. In a mass e-mail to donors sent Tuesday, Rubio accused the Times of suggesting that he’s “not rich enough to be president.” Then he went after Hillary Clinton.

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“As I have said many times, I am not poor, but I’m not rich either,” Rubio wrote. “It’s true, I didn’t make over $11 million last year giving speeches to special interests. And we don’t have a family foundation that has raised $2 billion from Wall Street and foreign interests.”

A few days earlier, the Rubio campaign went after the Times for a different story – one detailing his and his wife’s driving records, which include numerous citations for “speeding, driving through red lights, and careless driving.”

Twitter users mocked the Times with the hashtag #RubioCrimeSpree. The finance story spawned a followup, #RubioSpendingSpree.  

In five days, fundraising on both stories had netted the campaign $100,000, according to Politico

W. James Antle III, writing in The Week, opined Wednesday that Rubio’s shaky finances wouldn’t topple his campaign – “unless there’s more to the story.”

“People don’t expect their politicians to be perfect,” Mr. Antle wrote. “They do like to feel reasonably confident they aren't bought and paid for, a suspicion that skeptics of the current campaign finance system already harbor.”

So far, there’s been no suggestion Rubio is corrupt. Also, the Times erred by calling the $80,000 boat a “luxury speedboat.” It’s a fishing boat – albeit, a high-end version. The $80,000 figure is correct.

The rest of the Times article stands as written. Any Republicans uneasy with a man who can’t keep his credit cards straight, or who liquidates a retirement account to buy a $3,000 refrigerator and a new air conditioning unit, among other things, might be concerned about the GOP star’s prospects – especially for a party that stands for fiscal responsibility. The Times article noted that even some Rubio supporters are worried.  

But for now, it’s Rubio 1, New York Times 0. And Rubio’s standing as a top-tier candidate appears safe.