By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - He could be the Republican vice presidential candidate from central casting: telegenic, Hispanic and a fiscal conservative who has been embraced by the Tea Party.
That's why Florida Senator Marco Rubio is presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's top choice as a running mate - at least he is this week, with Gingrich about to battle Mitt Romney in the Sunshine State's Republican primary on Tuesday.
But Rubio may not be as coveted as Gingrich or Romney would have it appear as they press for votes in Florida, where more than 450,000 Hispanics identify themselves as Republicans.
Despite his reputation as a watchdog over federal spending, Rubio, 40, has had significant financial problems that could keep him from passing any vetting process as a potential vice presidential choice, Republican and Democratic strategists say.
In some ways, the story of Rubio's finances is similar to those of hundreds of thousands of his constituents in a state where more than 40 percent of homeowners are "underwater," owing more on their homes than the homes are worth.
It's a crisis driven by falling property values and ill-advised second mortgages that drove up homeowners' debts.
Rubio owes far more on his $384,000 Miami home than it is worth, and at times has had difficulty paying his mortgage.
He bought the home in 2005 for $550,000 with a $495,000 mortgage. He soon had it appraised for $735,000 and took out a second mortgage for $135,000.
In 2008, despite earning a declared $400,000 - including his $300,000 salary from the Miami law firm Broad and Cassel - Rubio failed to make a payment on his home for several months, according to Florida campaign finance disclosures.
During the same period he did not make payments on a $100,000-plus student loan from his days at the University of Miami, the disclosures said.
Rubio's spending habits also have gotten attention in Florida.
Before joining the Senate last year, he was caught up in an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the Florida Republican Party's use of party-issued credit cards. He frequently had used his party credit card for personal use, and later reimbursed the party for about $16,000.
Rubio's handling of his personal finances contrasts sharply with the image of him on his Senate website, which highlights Rubio's efforts to prevent Washington from "piling up debt."
"We need a government that stops spending more money than it takes in," the website says.
Rubio's financial issues have led Florida Democrats to cast him as a hypocrite.
"Rubio campaigned on reining in government spending, but his own personal spending is out control," said Brannon Jordan of the Florida Democratic Party. "He says one thing but is doing another."
Rubio's office declined to discuss his mortgage issues in detail.
"That's all been pretty well documented," said his spokesman, Alex Conant.
Supporters say his debts are not significant and may have been remedied by an advance for a book deal with Sentinel, a conservative wing of the Penguin Group.
The book is tentatively scheduled for release this fall, Conant said. Rubio's contract with Sentinel remains confidential.
Campaigning in Florida, Gingrich has praised Rubio as a "great guy" who would "be on the short list of anyone who becomes our nominee" in discussions about a running mate.
Rubio has resisted talk of his being on the Republican ticket.
"I do not think or believe that I will be vice president of this country," Rubio said, but "I appreciate (Gingrich's) comments because they make one feel good."
"MORE THAN JUST A SENATOR"
Reports of his financial problems may have embarrassed Rubio but they haven't prevented him from attaining what amounts to rock-star status in the Tea Party, which seeks to limit government and taxes.
Rubio initially cast himself as the U.S.-born son of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959.
That narrative ran aground when records surfaced showing that his parents actually had left Cuba years earlier. But to south Florida's conservative, anti-Castro Cubans, Rubio remains a symbol of second-generation success in America.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, see him as a powerful draw for Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing part of the national electorate.
"Senator Rubio is more than just a senator, he has become a symbol for the Hispanic American ... and an embodiment of the American Dream," said Luis Andre Gazitua, 35, a Miami lawyer who is active in the Republican Party.
Rubio, a father of who is married to a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, says he won't endorse a candidate in the race for the Republican nomination for president.
However, he has close ties to Gingrich and Romney.
Several of Rubio's key staff members worked on Romney's unsuccessful bid for the nomination in 2008. They include Rubio's chief of staff, Cesar Conda, a former aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Rubio's former campaign chief, Jose Mallea, is heading Gingrich's campaign in Florida.
Gingrich and Romney have courted Rubio for an endorsement, and Rubio's influence in the presidential campaign here was evident this week.
After Gingrich's campaign released a Spanish-language radio spot that called Romney "anti-immigrant," Rubio blasted the ad as "inflammatory" and "inaccurate."
Gingrich's campaign soon took down the ad.
CAN HE ATTRACT HISPANIC VOTERS?
Many Republicans believe the believe the bilingual Rubio could help the party carry Florida in the presidential election by attracting support from Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic.
Analysts say the party has good reason to be worried about its image in heavily Hispanic states such as Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, where Latinos now make up more than 30 percent of the population.
In a Latino Decisions tracking poll last year, 72 percent of Hispanic voters said Republicans either "didn't care" or were "hostile" to their community.
It's unclear whether Rubio is the right choice to fix the party's image. He has not endeared himself to Hispanic voters on several fronts, analysts say.
In Congress he opposed the so-called DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, and he expressed support for a harsh immigration law in Arizona.
Rubio also voted against Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's Supreme Court nominee who is of Puerto Rican descent, and more recently blocked the confirmation of another Puerto Rican, Marie Carmen Aponte, as ambassador to El Salvador.
He also voted against Obama's healthcare overhaul, which is popular among many low-income Hispanics.
"He's on the wrong side on every issue that matters to Hispanics," said Fernand Amandi with Bendixen & Amandi, a political consulting firm in Miami that has been retained by the Obama campaign. "He's going to have to answer to those positions."
Despite holding moderate views on immigration as a state legislator early in his career, Rubio's position toughened as he gained national attention.
For example, in 2003 he co-sponsored legislation to allow the foreign-born children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition fees.
Recently, however, he said, "If you're here in violation of the laws, you shouldn't benefit from these programs."
He now says he would support such assistance for "a limited number" of undocumented students who had "exhibited good moral character."
Rubio also has urged the party to tone down its harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration.
"The Republican Party should not be labeled as the anti-illegal immigration party. Republicans need to be the pro-legal immigration party," he said.
Rubio is expected to address the issue again in a speech on Friday to the Hispanic Leadership Network. The group was founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, one of the most vocal conservative advocates of greater cultural sensitivity toward immigrants.
Bush, a fluent Spanish-speaker whose wife, Columba, was born in Mexico, has been grooming Rubio on the issue, party insiders say.
"I don't think you can underestimate their relationship," Conant said.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Walsh)