Rubio Rising: The Florida GOP has a new star

By John J. Miller

Florida governor Charlie Crist is running for the Senate, and he isn’t supposed to lose — let alone lose in the Republican primary. He enjoys a high approval rating, has a history of success among voters, and raises campaign cash with the intensity of a Category 5 hurricane. His main opponent in the GOP primary is Marco Rubio, a 38-year-old Miami native who quotes Snoop Dogg lyrics on his Twitter account. On paper, it looks like a mismatch between an unbeatable juggernaut and a doomed also-ran.

Yet Crist may be vulnerable: He warmly embraced President Obama’s stimulus spending and is one of the most liberal politicians in the Republican firmament. Rubio is among the brightest young stars on the right. Their contest could become the sleeper race of 2010.

That would spoil the well-laid plans of many in the GOP establishment. They want the Senate race in Florida to be over before it starts. In May, when Crist declared that he would forgo a second term as governor and aim for the seat of retiring senator Mel Martinez, the National Republican Senatorial Committee waited all of 14 minutes to endorse him. “I never thought I’d see the day when a conservative was the insurgent in a Republican primary,” says Rubio. Yet this is precisely what he has become: a heavy underdog who must learn to wage the political version of asymmetric warfare. A recent Mason–Dixon poll gave Crist a big lead over his rival, 51 percent to 23 percent.

The election remains a year away. For a primary, it’s late on the calendar: Aug. 24, 2010. That gives Rubio plenty of time to catch up. The details of the Mason–Dixon poll suggest that he’ll have a fighting chance. Among Republicans who are familiar with both candidates, Crist’s lead slips to statistical insignificance. It’s basically a dead heat. “I’m not a kamikaze,” says Rubio. “At this time next year, you’re going to be analyzing a very different race.” For that prediction to come true, conservatives in Florida and around the country will have to turn Rubio’s candidacy into a cause.

Marco Antonio Rubio was born in 1971, the son of Cuban exiles. His father worked late nights as a bartender. His mother was a hotel maid and a stock clerk at Kmart. They lived in Miami, moved to Las Vegas for a few years, and finally returned to Florida. “I gained an interest in politics and history from my uncle, who would read books and newspapers out loud to us,” says Rubio. As with many boys, sports were a priority. He played defensive back for his high-school football team. He says he has a recurring dream — a “nightmare,” he calls it — about a playoff game in 1987: “We should have won, but the referees called back a play, we missed a field goal, and our team lost.”

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