Crist Drops in Polls, Rubio on the Rise

What conservatives are increasingly calling the “showcase Senate primary” of 2010 has already taken some early and very positive turns for their candidate.  The latest Qunnipiac University poll among Florida Republicans showed Marco Rubio, former speaker of the state House and the conservative hopeful in the GOP Senate primary next year, gaining dramatically on the long-presumed front-runner, incumbent governor Charlie Crist.  

Where Quinnipiac showed centrist Gov. Charlie Crist leading Rubio among likely GOP voters by a margin of nearly 2-to-1 in August, the same poll’s in late October showed Crist’s edge over Rubio cut to margin of 50% to 35% statewide.  

What once seemed a slam-dunk for Crist, is rapidly turning into a horserace for the proverbial “soul of the Republican Party.”  Even the New York Times conceded as much in its Page One story November 16th with the headline: “A Surefire Florida Republican Becomes a Right-Wing Target.”  

Crist, most famous for his embrace of President Obama (physically) and Obama’s failed stimulus plan (politically) is seen by a growing number of conservatives as too liberal.  And not only for that, but for leaning far to the left on global warming.  Crist’s Second Amendment credentials are also in doubt.

The Times and other national press profiling the race for the seat of former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez (who resigned earlier this year) almost always cite the growing unpopularity of the Obama economic agenda as the reason for Rubio on the rise and Crist’s decline. In February, Crist made national headlines when he publicly embraced  President Obama after he became the first Republican governor to endorse the White House economic stimulus package.

But that was before what the Times’ called “a season of tea parties and fractious town hall meetings” that demonstrated opposition to stimulus package and other Democrat-backed spending plans.  

As Crist drops in the polls and faces hecklers at GOP functions, the 38-year-old Rubio is gaining fresh support.  As he told me last week, “We raised more than $1.6 million in the last quarter and that figure will be bigger in the next quarter.”  The son of Cuban exiles has significant support in the state and, like Conservative hopeful Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd U.S. House district, nationwide backing as well.  Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, have already endorsed Rubio over Crist.

And, Rubio revealed to me, the brothers many say will lead the next generation of Bushes in politics will publicly weigh in for him.  In their first major campaign effort since their Uncle George’s re-election in 2004, George P. Bush and Jeb Bush, Jr. will host a major fund-raising event for their fellow Floridian Rubio in Miami December 21st.

George P. and Jeb, Jr. are the sons of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who held the statehouse for eight years before Crist and, in contrast to his brother and father and Crist, is held in high regard by conservatives.  Will his endorsement of Rubio follow that of his sons?

“I’d sure like to have Jeb’s support,” Rubio said, “We worked closely together when he was governor and I was in the legislature.  But right now, he’s so busy in private business he hasn’t endorsed anyone.”

In discussing his support from the Bushes, Rubio quickly reminded me that his is a campaign that “is not built on endorsements but on issues.”  While the conservative insurgent said that the New York Times is correct in citing his difference with Crist over what he calls “the failed stimulus package” as a reason for the changing polls, Rubio said there are other issues in which he offers an alternative to his opponent:  cap and trade-style legislation to deal with climate control (“We stopped [Crist] when he tried to impose his own cap and trade measure on Florida and I was speaker”), the issue of government spending (“The budgets we proposed in the state House were smaller than the ones the governor proposed and that were ultimately passed in 2007 and ‘08”), and the Second Amendment.  On the latter point, Rubio pointed out that Crist had appointed to the state supreme court Judge James Perry, who has an anti-Second Amendment reputation and was opposed by the National Rifle Association.

As it will be in other primaries, the clout of the tea party movement is considered a major factor in the Florida Senate battle between Crist and Rubio.  Recalling his own involvement in tea parties, Rubio noted that “I have been to a number of them.  The tea party in Palm Beach County drew thousands, and more than 2000 dared the rain in Lakeland County for a tea party on 9/12.  And Orange County had a major tea party July 4th.  This is a significant movement here in Florida and they are all angry over a stimulus package that stimulated nothing but the national debt.  And I hope it will continue to be a party and get behind other conservative causes in 2010.”