After stepping down as U.S. treasurer last summer, Rosario Marin returned to the working-class Latino community of Huntington Park where she has lived since arriving from Mexico as a poor 14-year-old.
She bought a new house on Hope Street. She painted it white and blue -- to go with the red roof. And she embarked on a campaign to convince her fellow Republicans that she is the candidate to knock Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer from office.
Marin talks like it's destiny. "The future is now. I am a woman. I am a minority. I am a Republican," says Marin, 45, as she cruises in her "Adios Boxer Express" bus toward a campaign stop with Silicon Valley executives.
Marin's pitch that she is the ideal Republican to mirror California's changing demographics is the source of her appeal and her dilemma.
To Republicans eager to expand the party's traditional base to moderate women and Latinos, she represents the forefront of a more inclusive, and successful, Republican Party. But in a GOP still dominated by white conservatives, Marin, a Latina with moderate stances, may be too far in the forefront to win the primary.
"Barbara Boxer's worst nightmare," as one campaign slogan reads, still lives in Huntington Park, a city southeast of downtown Los Angeles where Marin learned English, went to school and raised her three children.
She is bilingual, an abortion-rights advocate, and supports the assault weapons ban. In short, Marin says she is not like the conservative male Republican candidates that Boxer has trounced in two previous elections.
"Barbara Boxer has always attacked her opponents in our party as being anti-woman, anti-minority, and anti-working-poor," Marin said. "How can she [say] that I'm anti-woman? A woman who is pro-choice. How can she ever say I'm anti-minority? I am one, and an immigrant no less. Anti-working-poor? My dad was a janitor, my mom a seamstress."
But Marin doubters say her candidacy looks a lot better on paper than in real life. Her immigrant's tale, they say, isn't enough to overcome her inexperience and unproven track record for fundraising.
And she has been passed over by key GOP power brokers, such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, who have endorsed former Secretary of State Bill Jones.
Whatever the outcome, her life is an exemplar of immigrant success. Rosario Spindola was born in a two-room house in Mexico City in 1958. The family was so poor, she says, that her parents and four siblings shared one bedroom. Her father, Mariano, supported the family for years by sending money home from California, where he worked for a label manufacturer. The factory, Marin said, had helped her father get a green card. Eventually, Mariano, with help from the company, moved the family north, Marin said.
Marin didn't speak a word of English, and scored 27 out of 100 on an IQ test. She would listen to songs on the radio, and enunciate English words to accelerate her learning. A few years later she graduated from Huntington Park High School at the top of her class.
Marin's parents -- both of whom have sixth-grade educations -- were thrilled, but sending her to college was not a priority for the financially struggling family.
Marin got a job and helped raise her younger siblings. She went to Cal State L.A. at night, sometimes studying until 3 a.m. It took her seven years to get her bachelor's degree in business, and she set her sights on one day opening a bank. She also married Nicaraguan-born Alvaro Marin, known as Alex, and started a family.
Her life took an abrupt turn when she gave birth to her first son, Eric, now 18, who has Down syndrome. Recognizing that parents of developmentally disabled children could benefit from increased assistance, she started a support group that eventually became FUERZA Inc. Marin would later be honored with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Prize for her work with the disabled.
Her activism propelled her into public life, and she became part of the administration of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, first as a legislative aide in the department of developmental services and eventually as his liaison to the Latino community.
While working for Wilson, she ran successfully for City Council in Huntington Park, an overwhelmingly Democratic city where she became known as a hard-working, law-and-order politician who never shied away from battles, both inside and outside City Hall.
When the city's main drag attracted disorderly mobs after soccer victories by the Mexican national team, she stood alongside police officers trying to keep the peace. She also backed a crackdown on the black market for illegal documents.
In two terms there, she engaged council opponents in numerous raucous debates. Marin fought for more funding for the city's police force, opposed a no-bid trash-hauling contract for a friend of the then-mayor, and criticized the same mayor for making what she called racially biased comments against Mexican immigrants.
The feuds at times led to tit-for-tat censures for alleged disruptive behavior. Boxer's camp has already seized on that, suggesting in interviews that Marin is rude and unprofessional.
Councilman Ric Loya, a colleague on the council, said that Marin at times was perceived as arrogant, but that her passion and organizational skills helped the city.
"She wasn't always easy to get along with, but she was effective," Loya said.
Marin's grass-roots appeal paid off: In 1999, she was reelected to the council as the top vote-getter -- despite her Republican roots -- and served one year as mayor.
Marin made the national stage in 2002, when President Bush selected her to be treasurer, a largely ceremonial post. She was the highest-ranking Latina in his administration.
But for Marin such standing has cut both ways. While her success has fueled pride in some quarters, others have mocked her.
Criticism dates back to her days as a spokeswoman for the Wilson administration when he supported Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that would have denied public services to illegal immigrants. Marin says she opposed the measure, but many Latinos criticized her for muting her opinion.
Immigration reform remains a touchy issue in the current race, with Marin, in particular, forced to walk a tightrope between groups from which she hopes to gain support.
Marin is the only one of the candidates to support Bush's immigrant guest-worker plan, which has been criticized by some Republicans as a faulty "amnesty" policy. Latinos, on the other hand, criticize Marin for being blindly loyal to the president.
"She makes a good house Mexican for the Republicans," read a mass e-mail by Steven J. Ybarra, a Democratic National Committee official.
She has been anything but docile in this campaign, however.
She is the only one of the candidates to repeatedly go on the offensive against Jones, calling him the "Taxman Cometh" for voting to raise taxes as an assemblyman in the early 1990s. And she has not let up on her criticism of Boxer, whom she said fears her candidacy so much that she started a "Viva Boxer" committee to court Latino support. Boxer's camp calls Marin's strategy a sign of her desperation.
"It's a nice attempt at packaging, but in the end it's just wishful thinking," said Roy Behr, a strategist for Boxer.
As she makes her first bid for statewide office, the growing pains are evident for Marin, whose prior runs were made in a city of 62,000.
Cheery and energetic, Marin is trying to build name recognition through her stint as treasurer -- "I'm right on the money" she says -- and delights in signing autographs on greenbacks that bear her looping signature. The autograph sessions have become a staple on the campaign trail, from the Tet parade in Orange County's Little Saigon to a visit to the Jelly Belly Candy Co. in Fairfield.
After posing for a picture under a 15,000-piece jelly bean portrait of Ronald Reagan -- "This is the man who inspired me," Marin says of the president for whom she cast her first vote as a citizen in 1984 -- she signed a stack of $1 bills for candy factory executives.
An hour later, she got word on the bus that they had decided to give $4,000 to her campaign. "Yippee!" squealed Marin, raising her hands and clicking her fingers. "I'm going to do a belly dance."
But her playful rapport can disappear in formal settings, where she sometimes seems uncomfortable and scripted -- a trait which does not inspire confidence in donors or party regulars.
At the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Marin, backed by a row of American flags, read a speech on immigration reform to about 40 people, most of them supporters.
Nearby, tourists strolled the museum, seemingly more interested in an exhibit touting Nixon's friendship with legendary baseball slugger Jackie Robinson.
Marin, occasionally looking up from her printed remarks, called Bush's guest-worker plan a good first step, but she spent most of her time criticizing Mexico for not doing enough to stem the flow of illegal immigration.
Afterward, Marin was repeatedly questioned about whether she backs legislation that would withhold federal aid to states that approve driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
"I have already addressed this issue," replied Marin.
The reporter persisted. Marin called the legislation a "Band-Aid" approach but did not give her stance.
"Next question," interjected Kevin Spillane, Marin's campaign strategist.
Watching nearby, Chatsworth resident Ron Bujarski said Marin has dodged the question.
"I like frankness, so that was not a good thing," said Bujarski, who had come to see Marin but left undecided about her candidacy. "Obviously, she was only willing to say what was prepared ahead of time."
Others who came to see her, however, were optimistic that Marin, as a Latina with Mexican roots, would command a special voice in the Senate.
"She's a gutsy lady. She's willing to go down there and get in [Mexican President] Fox's face and say we're not the solution to their problem," said Xavier Hermosillo, a San Pedro-based public relations consultant. "If she's in the Senate, she can do more than anyone else on this issue."