Florida's Rubio

There may be a big political surprise in the making. The race for Florida’s open Senate seat in 2010 has actually become a race. Few expected this to happen. As a Floridian now, I’m even more interested than I would have been [although my interest would have been high regardless].

Charlie Crist, Florida’s current governor, as soon as he announced he was running for the Senate, received the official blessing of the national Republican leadership almost before he announced. They simply saw an easy victory and declared him their standardbearer.

A lot of conservative Republicans were upset with that rapid endorsement. Crist is not exactly a conservative. He not only supported the stimulus bill, but gave President Obama a hug when he came to Florida. Crist was quite happy to be seen with what he thought was a popular president. He was also eager to take the federal money [a.k.a., taxpayer money] for his state.

No one really expected a significant challenge to Crist. Then the unexpected happened.

Marco Rubio—young, conservative, Hispanic, and former speaker of the Florida House—decided to accept the challenge. Rubio is articulate, opposed to the Obama policies, both economic and social, and the hope of many conservatives who say they are tired of having to support RINOs [Republican in Name Only].

The sophisticated pundits gave Rubio no chance. This was a foolhardy mission, they concluded. No one knows him; he has little money. But name recognition can grow, and with it, the funds necessary to get out a message.

When National Review magazine put Rubio on its cover earlier this year, it marked a transition for the candidate and his candidacy. National Review has been the cornerstone of political conservatism since its founding in 1955. It came out for Rubio, declaring on the cover, “Yes, He Can,” an obvious play on the Obama slogan of 2008.

Polls at that time showed Rubio in the single digits, hardly a precursor for victory. The latest poll I’ve seen now puts the Crist lead at only 47-37, a remarkable turnaround in a very short time. Is it genuine? All you have to do is look at the Crist strategy now: claiming solid conserative credentials, scouring Rubio speeches for anything to use against him.

When Rubio came to Lakeland [my city of residence] in September, it didn’t take much to garner a large crowd. The local Republicans were excited by his presence, and nearly 200 crowded into the room to hear him speak. Crist, seeing that enthusiasm, booked an appearance in Lakeland as well. It was harder getting that crowd assembled. The difference in Republican enthusiasm toward the two candidates was apparent. Wherever straw polls have been taken among Republicans throughout Florida, Rubio has won by significant margins.

Is this the beginning of a conservative revolt against “me-too” Republicanism? Will the enthusiasm continue? Interestingly, I’ve heard commentators who are not necessarily pro-Rubio say that they expect him to win the primary against Crist next August. If that happens, and if he goes on to take the Senate seat, it could be the harbinger of real change, a race that will inspire others throughout the nation.