MIAMI — In Florida, where Cuba and Fidel Castro can be highly combustible political issues, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is defending himself against allegations he embellished his family's story in saying his parents left the island after Castro came to power.
So far, prominent members of the Cuban American community are standing by him, including the head of one of Miami's oldest and most respected exile groups, who said Friday that he is willing to give the rising GOP star and tea-party favorite a pass.
The 40-year-old freshman senator has always publicly identified with the exile community and has a strong following within it. In a campaign ad last year, he said: "As the son of exiles, I understand what it means to lose the gift of freedom." Rubio's biography on his Senate website previously said he was "born in Miami to Cuban-born parents who come to America following Fidel Castro's takeover." It has been changed to say Rubio "was born in Miami in 1971 to Cuban exiles who first arrived in the United States in 1956."
But The Washington Post reported that Rubio's parents actually left Cuba in 1956, nearly three years before Castro seized power in a revolution against dictator Fulgencia Batista. Rubio's father was a store security guard when he and his wife left, according to Rubio's staff, and came to the U.S. for economic reasons.
Rubio responded to the story with a statement saying his parents had tried to return to Cuba in March 1961 but quickly left because they did not want to live under communism.
"After arriving in the United States, they had always hoped to one day return to Cuba if things improved and traveled there several times," he said. "In 1961, my mother and older siblings did in fact return to Cuba while my father stayed behind wrapping up the family's matters in the U.S. After just a few weeks living there, she fully realized the true nature of the direction Castro was taking Cuba and returned to the United States one month later, never to return."
In addition, Rubio has said publicly on previous occasions that his parents left Cuba before the revolution.
Rubio's staff said it would change his Senate website.
The issue is magnified because of the formidable political clout of the Cuban exile community in Florida and the fierce passions in Miami that still surround Castro and the communist island, and because Rubio is often mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick. Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich have said he would make a great running mate.
Democrats are trying to make an issue of it, saying it calls into question Rubio's character. The Florida Democratic Party accused Rubio of "self-serving deception," and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Rubio has a credibility problem.
"The latest bombshell confirms that Rubio seriously struggles to tell the truth and can't be trusted," said DSCC spokesman Matt Canter.
But Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the GOP National Committee, said the attacks will only strengthen Rubio by causing Republicans to come to his defense. The conservative was elected in 2010 after an upset over the GOP establishment's choice, Gov. Charlie Crist.
"There's no question he has an amazing life story. His family came here to pursue a better life, and that is all accurate. There's folks out there who have seen a great success story and are plotting to figure out how to take him down," Spicer said.
The head of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, Pepe Hernandez, himself an exile and longtime opponent of Castro, said Rubio's parents' initial departure date was unimportant.
"There were a number of people who came here during the Batista regime because they were against Batista somehow," he said. "Then they returned to Cuba when Castro came in because they thought now things were going to change, and then after some time they realized this was not going to happen."
"Maybe their case is not exactly the same. They really came here as immigrants, but the second time the reason was that they couldn't live in Cuba under those circumstances. I don't see any difference between his parents and myself and everyone else who came here."
Former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who left Cuba as a teenager after the revolution, said the Post story showed "a gross lack of understanding about the Cuban exile experience. The fact is that they would not have left Cuba permanently if not for extreme fear of persecution and in search of freedom, like so many of us did."
Fernand Amandi, a pollster whose company specializes in Hispanic public opinion and works more often with Democrats than Republicans, said the episode alone might not be that damaging, but it could invite further scrutiny of Rubio's record.
"It's a chink in his armor of what was somebody who up to this point had almost uniformly positive and favorable coverage," he said.
Brendan Farrington reported from Tallahassee, Fla.
Farrington can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bsfarrington