Thursday, June 25, 2009

Florida Senate: Just What Is Marco Rubio Up to?

By Stuart Rothenberg

The GOP field in the 2010 Florida Senate race was supposed to clear quickly when Gov. Charlie Crist (R) announced his bid. But someone forget to tell former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R).

Most observers believe that Rubio, who jumped into the race before the governor, has little chance of wrestling the Republican nomination away from Crist. Even if that’s true (and I’m agnostic on that question at this point), there is still reason to keep an eye on the GOP contest.

Rubio, who turned 38 years old recently, began his career as a city commissioner for West Miami, eventually winning a seat in the Florida House during a 2000 special election. He was elected Speaker of the House for 2007 and 2008.

Rubio eyed a statewide bid for months, and insiders confirm that he initially intended on waiting to commit himself to a race until Crist revealed his plans. If Crist ran for re-election, Rubio would run for the Senate. If Crist switched to the Senate race, Rubio would run for governor.

But when Crist sat on his decision, Rubio jumped into the Senate contest, insisting that he was in the race no matter what Crist decided. (Rubio explained his decision by asserting that he couldn’t wait to finalize his plans, an assessment that few others share.)

Most observers doubted that the Miami-area Republican was serious. They believed that if Crist opted for the Senate, Rubio would run in the open gubernatorial race or possibly for state attorney general, depending on what Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) did.

But when the dominoes fell, McCollum was in the gubernatorial race, while Crist and Rubio were running for Senate. So, instead of coasting into the high-profile attorney general’s office, Rubio is now in a fight with the top state elected official of his party — and a man with a job-approval rating well over 60 percent.

Initial public polling in the Senate primary shows Crist over 50 percent and leading Rubio by more than 30 points. That’s a big problem for Rubio, considering that state voters aren’t traditionally all that interested in politics and the local media prefers covering crime, growth issues and tourism concerns rather than politics.

Geography is another problem for the former Speaker. His Miami base is not an asset in a primary or a general election, since the area is seen by voters in North Florida and in the crucial I-4 Corridor (from Tampa/St. Petersburg to Orlando and Daytona) as different from their own communities and interests.

Money is a challenge for Rubio. Florida is a large, expensive state that includes 10 media markets (including three extremely pricey ones), and Rubio must prove that he can raise enough money to run a credible campaign. He will be heavily outspent by the governor.

Pretty daunting, isn’t it? So what’s Rubio up to?

GOP insiders say the former Speaker is being encouraged to run by friends of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who like Rubio also believes that Crist was too quick to yield to state legislators about backtracking on some of Bush’s accomplishments.

Tensions in the state between Crist supporters and Bush loyalists haven’t been much of a secret, and allies of the former governor apparently have been happy to encourage Rubio’s Senate ambitions, hoping that even if he can’t win the nomination, Rubio can damage Crist’s reputation, thereby undermining his national ambitions.

Rubio’s opening salvo against Crist, a Web video, suggested that the former Florida Speaker hopes to make the 2010 contest into a referendum about both ideology and change, portraying the governor as a selfish politician who has put his own ambitions first and who would not be a reliable opponent of President Barack Obama on Capitol Hill.

“Some politicians support trillions in spending, borrowed money from China and the Middle East, mountains of debt for our children,” says an announcer shortly before a photograph of Crist and Obama comes into focus in the Rubio video. “Today, too many politicians embrace Washington’s same old broken ways ... ” continues the announcer, the photograph of the two men filling the screen.

“Movement conservatives” already call Crist “a squish,” so it wouldn’t be surprising to see plenty of them in the Sunshine State embrace Rubio. The question is how much the former Speaker can broaden his support. A recent endorsement from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is meaningless but reflects Rubio’s approach.

Supporters of Rubio talk about the primary as a national race, with the former Speaker appearing on Fox News and raising money nationally from conservatives. Rubio has already begun to court the Club for Growth, and knowledgeable sources tell me the club is “actively considering the race and Rubio’s candidacy.” Some observers see Rubio as trying to imitate then-Rep. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) 2004 primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter, which became a cause célèbre for many on the right.

Some insiders whisper that Rubio expects to lose but is running statewide to establish himself for a future race, possibly the seat held by Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2012. That’s possible, but running for and winning election as Florida’s attorney general would seem to be a better way for Rubio to set himself up for a run for governor or the Senate.

“People thought initially that Marco wouldn’t even be a nuisance [to Crist],” said one Rubio supporter. “But that sentiment is starting to turn. They realize that his candidacy isn’t a sign of selfishness. Nobody thinks that running against the governor is the easiest road Marco Rubio could have taken.”

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 22, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.