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Demolition Derby in Florida

Can Marco Rubio prevail?

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By FRED BARNES
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She reminded me that this election was about the kind of country my kids would inherit .  .  . if we allowed them to be the first generation of Americans to inherit a diminished country. .  .  . Had I run for these other offices, I think she would have felt that I was just running for the title and not the issues.

Were the CPAC address and others I’d heard his basic speech? “It’s the basic message,” Rubio said. “Our message hasn’t changed one bit.” Indeed it hasn’t. Then he summarized it succinctly. What are Florida’s problems? Chiefly unemployment (11.5 percent), he said. Again, he delivered a capsule version of his speech.


The ability to stick to a fundamental message and ignore the small stuff is the mark of a good candidate. Recall the politicians who were skilled at this. Reagan was. So was George W. Bush. Rubio is in good company.

But all of this—the message, Rubio’s strength as a speaker, his energy and passion—doesn’t guarantee him a safe path to the Senate. “No one’s ever seen a race like this in Florida,” says LeMieux. It’s unusually complicated. A Quinnipiac poll last week gave Crist a 5 or 6 point lead over Rubio, depending on who wins the Democratic primary on August 24, congressman Kendrick Meek or billionaire Jeff Greene. Rubio was ahead by 2 points in a Rasmussen poll of likely voters.

When Crist switched to independent, he was regarded as a goner. But he’s recovered. His handling of the Gulf oil spill has been skillful, and his flip-flops on issues haven’t hurt him appreciably. “Republicans see it as treason,” says Quinnipiac’s Peter Brown. “Independents see it in a different light. Democrats like it.” 

At the moment, Crist is getting a quarter of the Republican vote. This probably won’t last. “This is a great year to be a Republican,” says LeMieux, a perceptive analyst of Florida politics. “A lot of those Republicans who like Governor Crist personally are going to come home.” And vote for Rubio.

This means Crist’s ability to attract Democratic votes is critical. He’s hired Josh Isay, a former aide to Democratic senator Chuck Schumer, and his Democratic consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, along with several other Democratic strategists.

The White House surely could have blocked Democratic operatives from signing on with Crist. But neither President Obama nor Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, intervened. Obama endorsed Meek months ago but has done little to help him. Meek got 13 percent in the Quinnipiac survey.

A competitive Democratic nominee would actually help Rubio by keeping Democrats from defecting to Crist. “I can’t imagine the Obama administration’s political machine abandoning the Democratic nominee, especially if it’s Meek,” Jeb Bush says.

Meek, who is African-American, would insure a large black turnout that votes for him, not Crist. Greene, who leads Meek at the moment, might drive blacks to Crist, but he could cause a problem with independents. “Because of Greene’s unlimited checkbook, it is quite possible he could hurt Crist more among independents than he would help him among blacks,” according to a Florida consultant.

Despite the complications, Rubio’s prospects are brighter than Crist’s. He outraised Crist in the second quarter, $4.5 million to $1.8 million, and should continue to. Just as important, Rubio can rely on a massive Republican voter turnout operation. Whatever turnout machinery Crist puts together will be woefully overmatched. Meek and Greene? Their chances are minimal.

So I’m betting on Rubio. He’s more conservative than the state of Florida, but not by much in 2010. As Jeb Bush says, “He’s the right candidate at the right time. He’s one of the most inspirational speakers I know. He lifts people’s spirits. The message is we can do great things.”

Sounds like Reagan, doesn’t he? There are similarities. Reagan relied on a single big speech, delivered over and over with minor alterations. So does Rubio. Reagan was a conviction politician with strong patriotic feelings and an optimistic outlook about reviving America. So is Rubio. Reagan was disciplined in politics, as is Rubio. Reagan read the conservative classics. Rubio read Atlas Shrugged during his first session (9 weeks) of the Florida legislature, then read it again. He read the Federalist Papers after each Republican member was given a copy.

On the other hand, Reagan was inordinately likeable, had a mischievous sense of humor, and confessed that having been an actor really came in handy in politics. Those aren’t traits I’d identify with Rubio, though he’s anything but humorless.

Rubio is a product of a different America. His parents were part of the first wave of immigrants from Castro’s Cuba in 1959. He grew up in Miami and Las Vegas. He sees America not as a “city on a hill,” as Reagan did, but as a haven for freedom-seeking people around the world who view this country as exceptional.

And the issues have been turned upside down from Reagan’s time. Reagan’s overriding mission was to defeat communism. Rubio’s is to restore prosperity—jobs, growth, innovation—at home. As one of 100 senators, assuming he’s elected, Rubio won’t have the ability to do things on a presidential scale. But he knows, having packaged it in a speech, what he’s for and what he’s against. And what America needs.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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