Will financial fumbles hurt or help Marco Rubio?

Marco Rubio
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Marco Rubio's personal finances became an issue in the 2016 campaign this week when The New York Times published a lengthy piece detailing the Florida GOP senator's sometimes questionable spending habits and his occasional commingling of campaign and personal funds.

Elements of the story could prove damaging to Rubio—especially the use of campaign funds and employment of Rubio's spouse by a major campaign donor. But the overarching picture of a candidate from humble means struggling to pay off college loans and provide an education and comfortable life for his kids may wind up a benefit, making the candidate more relatable to voters who struggle with many of the same issues.

The Rubio campaign is counting on this.

Campaign spokesman Alex Conant told me this week he found it "sort of offensive for someone to suggest that he's bad with money because he's been paying off student loans while investing in his kids' education, donating to charity, and providing his family a safe and nice life."

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Conant added: "For all the Times' breathlessness, the facts are pretty simple: Marco has one debt, which is his home mortgage. He owns his truck outright and his wife leases another (until recently a Buick). He's given a lot to charity, putting his kids a private school education and savings for college, and has retirement accounts with the state Legislature and U.S. Senate. Considering that he inherited no wealth and took out a lot of student debt to go to college and law school, I'd argue that he has a good financial story to tell—or at least one that is relatable to a lot of Americans."

The personal financial narrative also contrasts with that of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of Rubio's principal rivals in the establishment lane in the GOP primary. Bush comes from a famous, wealthy family (though he too left office without great personal wealth).

Rubio was already pitching himself as an American success story, the son of immigrants who lifted himself up by dint of hard work. It's a powerful message that's helped lift Rubio into the top tier of GOP hopefuls and led Democrats to fear him as perhaps the most potent general election challenger to Hillary Clinton.

But the Times story is not an unalloyed positive.

Rubio faces doubts about finances

People will probably forgive Rubio for using part of an $800,000 book advance to buy an $80,000 fishing boat (not a "luxury speed boat" as the Times described it). And making unwise real estate purchases that lose money is something that millions can understand.

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Things get a little sketchier from there.

It remains unclear why Rubio felt the need to liquidate a $68,000 retirement account—and take heavy tax penalties—when he also reported relatively high bank balances. Taking cash out of a 401(k) early is one of the dumber things a person can do unless there is a true emergency. Replacing a fridge does not count. The president of the United States is ultimately responsible for the state of the nation's finances (though Congress has the power of the purse) and decisions like these, unless better explained, are not likely to give people confidence.

Worse than this, Rubio admits using a campaign credit card to pay for personal expenses (though he says it was a mistake); appointing his wife as treasurer of a political action committee; and misusing Republican Party funds to pay for a trip.

There are also serious questions about Rubio's reliance on megadonor Norman Braman who continues to employ Rubio's wife. Braman may have nothing but the best intentions in helping a politician he likes and admires. But being this reliant on one person raises questions about Rubio's independence.

How will stories about Rubio's at times precarious finances ultimately impact his candidacy? Probably not that much. And if nothing more comes out about misuse of campaign funds, they might make him more relatable to a nation of mostly inept financial managers who struggle with debt and spending.

But the more Rubio rises, the more rival Republicans and Democrats will dig into every crevice of his financial life. And if more stories emerge of questionable financial dealings, Rubio's up-from-nothing story could turn around and bite him.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.