"Wow." That was the response of a cynical Florida Republican politico recently reacting to poll numbers showing former state speaker of the house Marco Rubio tied with Gov. Charlie Crist. The two are expected to face one another in an August Republican primary for the Senate seat abandoned by Republican Mel Martinez. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is wowing even the professionals; his performance is especially impressive because the weight of the Republican establishment is behind Crist, as it has been for most of the year the National Republican Senatorial Committee endorsed him back in the spring.
The politico, who told me months ago that Rubio didn't have a chance, now says: "The Rasmussen poll really surprised me. Not sure how that gap closed as the (in-state) coverage of the race hasn't been extremely significant." This Florida political insider previously dismissed Rubio as having no shot at taking on the governor of the state. "I think he has a chance now, but it is still an uphill battle. His fundraising last quarter helped his momentum big time, in addition to some unforced errors on Crist's part."
Marco Rubio is no longer a long shot. In fact, another recent Rasmussen poll had Rubio slightly more likely than Crist to beat the likely Democratic nominee for the seat, Rep. Kendrick Meek.
If you spend time with Rubio, it's no surprise that he's impressing people. He comes off as "the real deal." That, of course, is an industry term for someone who actually believes in something and believes what he says. He's well-versed on issues local and national, and projects a solid presence in public, even when tired by the rigors of his upstart campaign.
Because Rubio doesn't have establishment support, he faces an uphill battle. But, taking a little inspiration from someone very different in politics, National Review put him on the cover a few months back with the cover line "Yes, He Can."
People are getting that message, including the professionals. South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint endorsed Rubio this summer and recently hosted a fundraiser for the candidate that brought in about $21,000. The Club for Growth, having set fundraising benchmarks for Rubio before they would endorse him, is on board, and with money. The candidate will himself admit that much more cash needs to be raised before the primary.
But August is still a long way away, and so far Crist is slipping, even though he's been running advertisements since October. Rubio, meanwhile, is consistently improving, financially and in the polls. While the Republican establishment insisted that Crist would be inevitable in 2010, Rubio has a donor base almost entirely consisting of small-dollar givers. A campaign spokesman calls their "grassroots online" action "the crown jewel" of their fundraising base.
"This is not about me," Rubio tells small groups in his humble way. Not many pols could make that sound convincing, but he does. Perhaps it's due to the other things he says: "Liberty and prosperity are not a birthright... The liberty and prosperity that each of us inherited from our parents and our grandparents were the result of sacrifices and difficult decisions that were made by people who came before us in leadership. All of this is a product of a Constitution that limited the size and scope of government. All of that is in peril because the government we have today is not a government whose powers come from the consent of the governed."
Rubio sees an opportunity to be one of those leaders helping preserve the constitutional system in an environment where political leaders are having the federal government "solve problems it should not be solving and spend money it doesn't have." That would certainly be a refreshing change from a bailout-crazed Washington stuck on nonstimulating stimuli.
Rubio doesn't believe in flashy gestures or big-fix political solutions. He adheres to a more careful, time-worn belief system, one in tune with this country's founding ideals: We are simply another generation called to make responsible decisions. Our decisions impact the next generation and we should bear that in mind as we face our choices, desires, and temptations.
Rubio would like a shot at making some good calls on behalf of Floridians. He happens to have the family history that gives one an internal reference point about how fortunate we are to be Americans. He'd like his kids to be able to say the same when they're his age. Americans contributing to his campaign from around the country like what they're hearing. Let the sunshine in from the Sunshine State.