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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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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.