While his opponents wilt in the Florida heat, Republican Marco Rubio looks poised to become the frontrunner in the Sunshine State’s three-way Senate race. Now within one point of the lead, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average, Rubio is catching fire as his fellow candidates catch flak. The political confidante of his nonaffiliated foe, Gov. Charlie Crist, was arrested on Wednesday and faces six counts of fraud. Crist himself is being sued by David Byrne of the Talking Heads for misusing campaign songs and faces growing criticism over his response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Rubio’s Democratic rival, Rep. Kendrick Meek, can’t even get to the 20-percent mark in most polls. All this leaves Rubio, once pegged as some tea-party dark horse, as the race’s most assured, stable contender. Oh, what a year it’s been.
Rubio tells National Review Online that he’s confident about the campaign so far, but is by no means resting easy as Crist and Meek stall. “We have a lot of work to do,” he tells us. “This is a big state with a lot of big issues. At the end of the day, it comes down to what kind of voice Florida wants in the U.S. Senate. For 16 months, I’ve talked about that, battled through, and my message is resonating with people; independents, Democrats, Floridians from all walks of life. They get what this is about, the choice we have to make: Does the United States want to continue to be exceptional or are we fine with being just like other countries?”
As the oil spill in the Gulf moves toward Florida, Rubio say how it has been handled by Crist and President Obama is “certainly affecting the conversation in America” about the federal government. “The federal response makes its clearer and clearer that this administration does not have a handle on what is happening,” Rubio says. “It’s just been one frustration after the other.” Crist, he says, has not led. “Ultimately, I’m not sure if he has. The governor is looking for opportunities to get on television, to have press conferences and media exposure . . . looking for opportunities to use this to showcase himself. I’m not sure if his leadership has been in the mold of Jeb Bush when he was faced with those hurricanes.”
While Rubio is unhappy with Crist and Obama’s response, that doesn’t mean he thinks the federal government should step away. “Let’s be clear,” he says. “We’re not anti-government. We think that government has a place. It’s just not the most important institution in society. Its role is, quite frankly, often exaggerated by both Republicans and Democrats at the federal level.”
“Just because you’re a limited-government conservative doesn’t mean that you believe that government is not important,” Rubio says. “There are things that government should do. If I’m in favor of more defense spending, does that mean I’m in favor of big government? Of course not. That’s a core function of the federal government, as is regulating the public safety of individuals, particularly with off-shore drilling rigs. The objection to the federal government is when it gets involved in things that are none of its business like the expanded role of the Department of Education and the growing role of the departments of transportation and commerce.”
Rubio is critical of how the Democrats are handling the developing Sestak-Romanoff scandals. “This is old-school Chicago politics being brought to the highest levels of American government,” he says. “This administration is full of people who will say and do anything to get elected.” Looking at his own experience as a primary insurgent, I ask Rubio whether the National Republican Senatorial Committee or other D.C. GOP-types ever dangled him an offer to jump out of the race last year, before Crist bailed from the party. “Absolutely not,” he says. “They never asked me to get out of this race or to run for something else and that’s to their credit.” Still, he says, Jim Greer, the arrested Crist ally who once led the Florida GOP, “did do everything in his power to try to force me out of this race.”
If Rubio wants to win this race, will he, as many have said, have to run toward the political center? “I don’t know what that means,” he says. “What I stand for are mainstream principles. America is by and large a center-right country. We believe in free enterprise and limited government. That’s why people move here, want to be here, and invest here. Those values make us the greatest society in the world. My strategy has been the same from day one – give the people of Florida a choice, stand up to the Obama agenda, and offer a clear alternative.”
Today, Rubio is in Minneapolis, being feted by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R., Minn.) at a GOP fundraiser.