Demolition Derby in Florida
Can Marco Rubio prevail?
Credit: Gary Locke
One speech, delivered often, has rarely meant more in politics than it does to Marco Rubio, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Florida. Why? Because the Rubio campaign is the speech, with its all-encompassing message on domestic and foreign issues, and Rubio’s Senate bid is the most watched race in the country this year.
For conservatives, he is the most important candidate in the midterm election. His defeat would deprive them of a new national star. His victory would mean the emergence of a leader among Republicans and a powerful, young conservative voice. Rubio is 39.
He’s already a national figure. “Everywhere I go I’m asked about Marco,” says former governor Jeb Bush. “The race hasn’t gotten as much attention in Florida as it has around the country.” Bush says, “Mark me down as a huge supporter.” In February, Republican senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina endorsed Rubio with this catchy line: “I’d rather have 30 Rubios [in the Senate] than 60 Arlen Specters.”
At 35, Rubio was House speaker in the Florida legislature. A more surprising Rubio feat: driving popular governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican party. Crist was the prohibitive favorite to win the Senate primary when Rubio jumped into the race last year. One poll had Crist 35 points ahead. But once Rubio opened a large lead, Crist decided to run as an independent.
The defeat of Rubio in November would probably mean the election of Crist. Since dropping out of the Republican primary in April, Crist has been changing his positions from right to left with breathtaking speed, raising the expectation—the near certainty, really—he would join Democrats in the Senate.
Thus a Crist victory, which is quite possible, would be a loss of a seat for Republicans and almost surely deny them a chance to gain the 10 seats needed to take control of the Senate. The winner will succeed Republican senator George LeMieux, appointed by Crist when Mel Martinez resigned in 2009. LeMieux, Crist’s campaign manager, gubernatorial chief of staff, and close friend, advised Crist to stay in the Republican race. When he didn’t, LeMieux endorsed Rubio.
By the end of the campaign in November, nearly every voter in Florida with a television or a computer or who has attended a Rubio event should have heard Rubio’s speech or at least pieces of it in TV ads or online videos. In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.
Rubio gave the essence of the speech in his farewell address to the Florida legislature in March 2009. He delivered it again at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last February. He repeated parts of it during his debate with Crist on Fox News Sunday in March. I heard him give the speech to the Florida Family Policy Council in May and to business groups in Orlando in July.
The core of the speech is a paean to American exceptionalism. He mentions the word “exceptional” repeatedly, perhaps to highlight the contrast with President Obama, who suggested to a French audience last year that America is no more exceptional than any other country. The election, Rubio told the Southeast Building Conference, will decide whether America will “continue to be exceptional or be like everybody else.”
At CPAC, Rubio dwelt on the theme of exceptionalism. “I am privileged to be a citizen of the single greatest society in all of human history,” he said.
There’s never been a nation like the United States, ever. . . . It’s sometimes easy to forget how special America really is. . . . What makes America great is that there are dreams that are impossible everywhere else but are possible here. . . . This is the only place in the world where you can open up a business in the spare bedroom of your home.
Rubio often cites one of Ronald Reagan’s stories. A Cuban exile told Reagan, “Don’t feel sorry for us. We had somewhere to go. Where are Americans going to go if they lose this great country?” The idea is “you could lose what made us exceptional,” Rubio explains. “Reagan kind of represented this re-embrace of the notion that America could remain exceptional.” Now Rubio does, or will if he’s elected. “It’s certainly not inevitable” that America will become “just another important country. It’s a choice.”