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The Florida Underdog

Marco Rubio's uphill race against Charlie Crist.

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Last Tuesday, Republican Marco Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, announced a bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez. At 37, Rubio, a fresh-faced charismatic Cuban American and Jeb Bush protégé, would seem to be the perfect recruit for statewide office. But a big obstacle stands between him and the GOP nomination: Charlie Crist, the state's popular, moderate, one-term governor, who is expected to announce his own run for the Senate seat very soon.

Florida politicos say Crist is "unbeatable" in a Republican primary, and a Quinnipiac poll from early April suggests as much: In a primary match-up between Crist and other potential GOP candidates, the governor trounced Rubio 54 percent to 8 percent. The same poll, however, found that 78 percent of Florida Republicans didn't know enough about Rubio to have an opinion about him.

That will change between now and the August 2010 primary, as the media flock to cover the most prominent conservative-versus-moderate Republican primary campaign in the country. When Republicans in Florida get to know Rubio, they will discover a dynamic speaker with an appealing biography and a deeply held conservative philosophy.

In some respects, Rubio is a little like another state legislator who ran for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama. Like the president, Rubio points to his biography as a testament to the American dream. The son of Cuban immigrants who fled Castro's regime, Rubio grew up in a working-class home--his father was a bartender and his mother a factory worker, casino maid, and Kmart stock clerk. He spent a year at Tarkio College in Missouri on a football scholarship before transferring to earn his bachelor's degree at the University of Florida and his law degree at the University of Miami. He married his longtime girlfriend Jeannette, once a Miami Dolphins cheerleader and now the mother of their four young children. Raised and confirmed a Catholic, Rubio worships with his family at an evangelical church.

Rubio rose rapidly in politics. Elected to the state house in 2000, he served as majority whip and majority leader before being named speaker for the 2007 and 2008 legislative sessions. He recently retired, as required by term-limits.

Like Obama, Rubio can thrill an audience. On April 13, he addressed the College Republicans and Students for a Free Cuba at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Cuba, he said, presents us with "an opportunity just 90 miles off our shores to defend and stand up for the constitutional and Founding principles of this country."

Rubio called the U.S. embargo "our last and only leverage point" for negotiating Cuban freedom with a successor regime. He added, "I wish we could do in China what I hope we'll do in Cuba, but we can't. There are geopolitical realities."

The students--a sympathetic audience--were wowed by the speech, delivered without notes. "I think we just saw the future president of the United States!" exclaimed one undergrad leaving the event. "I just wanted to say thanks .  .  . for bringing us some hope in the GOP," another student told Rubio.

It's not only young Republicans who respond to Rubio. "You had the immediate impression that he would be a rising star," says Bob Sanchez, a former editorial board member of the Miami Herald, recalling Rubio's pitch for the paper's endorsement back in 1998 in a race for city commissioner. "He had a good philosophy and was able to express it. It's like when one of these people on American Idol really can sing, all of a sudden you really think, 'Wow, he was very impressive.' "

Rubio and Obama have little in common politically. Rubio is usually on the same page as his mentor, Jeb Bush. After a meeting with then-Governor Bush in 2005, Rubio developed a legislative agenda for conservative reform, which he describes as a marriage between a "big, bold contract with Florida concept" and Bush's suggestion that some of his own best ideas came from ordinary citizens who sent him emails or letters.

On the day he was designated speaker, Rubio gave house members each a book with blank pages titled 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future. He told his colleagues they would write it together, and he barnstormed the state holding "Idea-raisers" to come up with policy proposals on issues such as taxes, education, health care, transportation, and crime.

While the policy differences between Bush and Rubio are few--Bush supports and Rubio opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, for instance--Rubio often clashed with Charlie Crist, who was elected governor in 2006. Rubio challenged Crist on taxes, environmental issues, gambling, and more. Asked how he views Crist, Rubio told me, "I have disagreements with him on ideology but not on a personal basis."

He then landed a few punches, saying Crist's plan to impose "big-government mandates" to cap carbon emissions in Florida would hurt the economy with little return for the environment. Rubio criticized Crist's property tax reduction as "a cosmetic fix to a very serious problem." Rubio had unsuccessfully fought to abolish the property tax and replace it with a 2.5 percent consumption tax.

He also took aim at Crist's support for the stimulus package and especially his decision to campaign for it with Obama in Florida. "It's one thing to say you'll accept the funds from the federal government," Rubio said, "it's another to actively advocate those policies, which I think are disastrous for America."

Crist's vulnerabilities with conservatives go beyond fiscal issues. In March, he appointed a liberal judge to the state supreme court. Last year, Crist told National Review that he's "pro-life" but doesn't think Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and he couldn't name a single restriction on abortion he would call for in Florida. Rubio thinks Roe should be overturned on constitutional and moral grounds; he says simply: "Unborn children have the right to live."

However impressive, Rubio will have an uphill battle in the primary. Some voters may be turned off by his endorsement of Mike Huckabee in 2008, whom he backed mainly for supporting the "fair tax."

And some voters will simply prefer Crist, who easily defeated a more conservative challenger in a 2006 gubernatorial primary. Rubio himself said as recently as January that if Crist ran, other potential contenders for the Republican nomination "would step aside and acknowledge that Charlie Crist would be the best candidate." For GOP voters facing a filibuster-proof Senate, electability may trump all in 2010.

Still, Rubio has a bright political future whether or not he wins the nomination. Even an unsuccessful campaign will raise his profile for the day, sooner or later, when voters decide that liberalism is not the change we need.

John McCormack is a deputy online editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.