Conservatives see 'right values' in Fla. candidate Rubio
By Susan PageLONGWOOD, Fla. — If Christine O’Donnell reflects the political risks of the Tea Party, Marco Rubio represents its potential promise.
In Delaware, O’Donnell’s upset primary victory last week may cost the GOP what could have been an easy pick-up of a Senate seat. In Florida, however, Rubio has built a double-digit lead in statewide polls this month over Democrat Kendrick Meek and the state’s popular Republican-turned-independent governor, Charlie Crist.
Rubio, whose insurgent campaign pushed Crist out of the GOP primary, has consolidated Republican support and made some small gains among independent voters — and in the nation’s largest swing state. He has done that with a disciplined message focused on limited government, a compelling life story as the son of Cuban immigrants and an earnest demeanor. A former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he also has the sort of previous political experience that most of the major Tea Party-backed candidates lack.
(Is GOP platform large enough for Tea Party?)
Rubio says he is fighting to protect American exceptionalism.
"When the story of this election is written, it’ll say that it was a year when Americans kind of glimpsed what it would be like to redefine our country and said ‘no thanks,’ " Rubio, 39, said in an interview in the men’s locker room at Alaqua Country Club, the only quiet spot around after he had delivered a speech to an overflow crowd in the clubhouse.
In the Obama administration, "I think you have people who have dreamed of making America more like Western Europe," particularly on economic policy, he said. He said they had seized the recession’s travails as "a perfect opportunity" to move in that direction — and in the process created the Tea Party movement.
(What is the Tea Party? A growing state of mind)
The event in the gated community outside Orlando opened with a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and an effusive introduction by David Barton, leader of a Christian evangelical group called WallBuilders.
Rubio told the crowd that he had entered the Senate race 18 months earlier and 35 percentage points behind Crist for the Republican nomination. "The only people who thought I could win lived inside my home, and four of them were under the age of 10," he said to laughter.
"I honestly believe he’s doing it because he believes it in his heart," Patsy Gilbert of Orlando declares afterwards. She has been making appearances at conventions and elsewhere for the past two years as a Sarah Palin impersonator — there is a definite resemblance — but says she attended today simply to hear what Rubio had to say.
"When you see somebody with conviction, they will not be snaggled with the system," she says approvingly.
A Tea Party test
Rubio has pulled ahead in his Senate race, at least for now, while some Senate hopefuls in other states who triumphed in Republican primaries with Tea Party support are struggling.
In overwhelmingly Republican Utah, Mike Lee is favored to win, but Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ken Buck in Colorado and Sharron Angle in Nevada are in close contests. The race in Alaska was shaken up Friday when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, defeated by Tea Party-backed Joe Miller in the GOP primary, announced she would run as a write-in. O’Donnell, who defeated Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s primary, trails in early polls by double digits.
(Tea Party's win fuels a 'civil war' within GOP)
Some conservatives see Rubio as a rising star who may be able to broaden the movement’s appeal and bridge the divide between establishment Republicans and Tea Party newcomers.
(A look at some of the Tea Party's biggest leaders)
The fight in Florida will be a test of that.
"You’ve got to take it one step at a time...but the fact is that Rubio has got all the talents," says David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union and organizer of the Conservative Political Action Conference. Rubio received a hero’s welcome when he addressed the influential gathering in February. "He’s young enough; he’s articulate enough; he’s got a good narrative and he’s got the right values for the party. If he proves himself, he could well become the face of the party in eight years or so."
‘It’s still volatile’
The race in Florida isn’t over.
"It’s still volatile," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. Crist and Meek are battling to become the more credible alternative to Rubio. Crist has the support of a majority of independents, a Reuters-Ipsos poll released last week found, but Meek has made gains among Democrats.
Rubio, meanwhile, has been dogged by questions about his personal finances, including his use of a Republican Party credit card while he was speaker.
Still, the four most recent statewide polls this month all show Rubio with healthy leads.
Crist says "there’s merit to the argument" that the race will turn when Democratic voters decide whether he or Meek has a better chance to defeat Rubio. In an interview at the Tallahassee airport, Crist, 54, said he has been "liberated" by his decision to leave the GOP — it wasn’t entirely voluntary, since he seemed certain to lose the primary — and run as an independent.
"If people want somebody who is hard right or hard left, they have those choices in this race," he said. "If on the other hand they want somebody who is more down the middle, then Charlie Crist is their choice."
For his part, Meek called Crist a political opportunist who belatedly is embracing Democratic positions on off-shore drilling and other issues.
"It’s always been about the run for the next office," Meek said of Crist, and he warned that the governor’s turncoat status in the GOP will intensify the party’s determination to beat him: "He’s a guy wearing a kerosene suit in a three-alarm fire."
In an interview, Meek, 44, said he had been disappointed by the failure of national Democrats so far to do more against Crist, who has suggested he might be a Democratic ally if elected to the Senate. "They’re using the excuse they’d like to see the race at a 3- or 4-point margin" before investing more in his campaign, Meek said, but noted he had surged to victory in the final weeks before the Democratic primary to beat a billionaire challenger.
(Poll: Democrats in power could be in peril)
"This is Florida," he said, where the politics can be unpredictable. "Because it’s a three-way race, that needle will move at least two or three times before Nov. 2 arrives."
- Read more about the Tea Party at Yahoo! News' special feature: Tea Party America