Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on April 18, 2010.
ORLANDO — Let there be no doubt: U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio believes America is the greatest country in the world. He believes the world is safer when America is stronger. He believes in free enterprise.
His stump speech also touches on policy — taxes, energy exploration, the national debt — wraps it in sweeping, patriotic themes and sprinkles his own American dream success story on top.
That way, he manages to “take a stand” — as he dubbed his recent bus tour through the political battleground of central Florida — and tell Republican voters what they want to hear.
It’s working. The former Miami lawmaker has rocketed from distant second to commanding first in the polls against Gov. Charlie Crist, potentially driving the governor out of the GOP primary for Florida’s open Senate seat. At a time when Republicans are looking for a hero, for their own Barack Obama to lead them out of the political wilderness in Washington, the 38-year-old Rubio finds himself fielding queries about a potential 2012 presidential bid.
“It’s the hope. It’s the hope that he will be different,” said Bill McSwain, 72, in an echo of the president’s well-known campaign slogan after shaking Rubio’s hand at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Orlando.
It’s not just that Rubio is more conservative than Crist, though political ideology is certainly an issue among voters disgruntled with the Obama administration. It’s that Crist has become known more for maneuvering than governing. The self-proclaimed “people’s governor” angled for a vice presidential slot in 2008, tapped buddy George LeMieux to be a U.S. senator in 2009 and blew off a second term in 2010, developing a reputation for putting career before constituents.
The final betrayal: Crist’s embrace of the freshly inaugurated President Obama and his economic stimulus package at a boisterous Fort Myers town hall meeting in 2009.
A fresh face
The governor’s veto of a controversial school reform bill last week looked to his critics like just another calculation, this one aimed at shaking up the race.
Enter the youthful, clean-cut Rubio in a navy sportcoat, who speaks with the zeal of a true believer.
“This election is a referendum on the very identity of our country,” he told an audience of about 200 people at an Orlando senior center decorated with red, white and blue balloons. “A referendum on the role of government and the economy and the role of America in the world.”
After losing control of Congress and the White House over the past four years, many Republicans said they felt disappointed by former President George W. Bush, betrayed by Crist and disgusted with politicians in general. Two days on the road with Rubio found him tapping into a new vein of optimism.
He found an ideal backdrop near Ocala in tiny Belleview, which calls itself “the city with small town charm.” After posing for pictures and admiring a baby in front of city hall, Rubio thanked his immigrant parents and God on a flag-adorned stage under trees draped with Spanish moss.
“I think he truly believes what he says,” said 48-year-old Bobby Dobkowski, a local radio talk show host. “You can’t help but get fired up.”
Another image from the bus tour evoked American prosperity and can-do spirit, with Rubio flanked by a tractor, backhoe and other heavy machinery while addressing workers at the Ring Power Caterpillar dealership in St. Augustine. Few voters on the campaign trail knew he climbed to the top leadership post in the Florida House during his nine years in Tallahassee.
Passionate, not angry
“I’m always looking for something different . . . He could definitely be the one,” said 45-year-old courier Shelly Fowler.
Before and after each campaign speech, Rubio looks voters in the eyes and puts his arms around them while listening patiently to their concerns. He is passionate but not angry, serious but not humorless.
“I think he’s the future of the Republican party, “ said U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who joined Rubio when he visited the Villages retirement community in her central Florida district. “He’s not going to go along to get along. He’s going to stand up for his principles without putting his finger up to the wind, and I’ve seen Charlie do that so many times.”
Rubio has occasionally strayed from a strictly conservative agenda, however. As a state lawmaker, he pushed $250 million in pet projects, voted for Crist’s climate change initiative and blocked measures to crack down on illegal immigration.
‘Take a Stand’
“Rubio is not that different from other politicians, but when you put him next to Charlie, he’s Saint Marco,” said Miami political consultant David Custin, who has given money to Rubio’s campaign. “Charlie’s shortcomings let Marco’s boyish grin and speaking skills reach their maximum potential.”
The theme of Rubio’s bus tour, “take a stand,” suggests that he is willing to say what he believes, no matter the cost. Yet much of what he says is straight from the Republican playbook: lower taxes, less spending, smaller government. When he talks about making over Social Security — the politically risky “third rail” of Florida politics — he couches it as “entitlement reform.”
“Now you’re not supposed to talk about entitlement reform because it will cost you the election,” said Rubio, who didn’t make Social Security a pillar of his stump speech until he established himself as the GOP front-runner. “If my generation does not make changes to Social Security and Medicare, it will not exist for us.”
The only bumps for the fast-moving campaign in recent months have been revelations that Rubio used his party credit card for personal expenses when he was House speaker and failed to disclose all spending by political committees he set up with his wife. Rubio also double-billed taxpayers and the party for several plane fares to Tallahassee.
When the stories about Rubio’s spotty record-keeping broke in The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times, Crist’s credibility with Republican voters was already strained.
“I heard about the spending stuff from Crist so I was skeptical that it was true,” said 67-year-old Kay Arnold, who went out to see Rubio’s recent interview with FOX News host Sean Hannity in the Villages. Hundreds of seniors dragged lawn chairs into the street and sipped from plastic cups of beer on a breezy night in the town square.
“I think Crist is a politician who will say whatever it takes,” Arnold added. “I like what Rubio says, and I think he says what he means.”