Magazine October 18, 2010, Issue

The Believer

Meek, Crist, and Rubio at the Univision debate (Joe Raedle/Getty)
How Marco Rubio became the conservative frontrunner in Florida’s Senate race

Univision’s rules for its Florida senatorial debate on September 17 were clear: The candidates were forbidden to use Spanish. Instead, they were to answer questions in English and have their words translated for Univision’s television audience of Spanish speakers. It was only fair, since two of the three men on stage didn’t know the language. Yet both Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek and Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist, the current governor, violated the directive with well-rehearsed efforts to slip in a few words of Spanish. Deep down, they seemed to want to say, we’re just brothers from another barrio.

Only Marco Rubio, the Republican nominee, resisted the temptation — and he was the reason for the rule. As the Miami-born son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio grew up speaking Spanish with his parents and English with his friends. “I’m not sure I have a first language,” he says in an interview. “They’re both my first language.”

During the debate, Crist and Meek went out of their way to denounce Arizona’s controversial immigration law and boasted of their love for Florida’s ethnic rainbow. Rubio took a different tack: He said that he sympathized with Arizona’s plight and believed that English should be America’s official language.

What Univision’s viewers made of their fellow Hispanic’s refusal to pander is an open question, but there’s no denying that they witnessed Rubio in all his conservative authenticity. On the campaign trail, Rubio rarely calibrates his message: He discusses the need for Social Security reform with senior citizens, the importance of offshore oil drilling with beachcombers, and why amnesty for illegal aliens is a bad idea with a Univision crowd that probably doesn’t agree. “It’s a cynical way to play politics with the lives of real people,” said Rubio in the debate, responding to a question about the DREAM Act, which would allow illegal aliens who earn high-school diplomas to gain lawful residency. “This is what always happens with Hispanic voters in this country: [Democratic leaders] manipulate them come election time.”

Surveys suggest that those manipulations won’t pay off in 2010. By the time Florida’s Senate candidates met in Univision’s Miami studio, the most recent polls of likely voters were showing Rubio ahead of Crist and Meek by double digits. The numbers highlighted what has become one of the most remarkable stories of the current election cycle. A year ago, Rubio was an underfunded conservative fighting for attention in a drawn-out GOP primary contest against a well-heeled governor who apparently had made John McCain’s short list of running mates in 2008. By this spring, however, Rubio’s surge in popularity had driven Crist from the party — and Rubio had become a perfect emblem of how conservatives have routed moderates in intraparty scrums across the country. If elected, Rubio promises to become not just a steady vote against the progressive dreams of President Obama, but one of conservatism’s great champions in Washington.

Rubio, who is now 39, launched his campaign in the spring of 2009, when Obama was riding a wave of goodwill and tea-party activism had yet to take off. Republicans were still reeling from the thrashings of 2006 and 2008, when they had watched their former Senate majority erode to just 40 seats — and many worried about suffering even deeper losses in 2010. To GOP leaders such as Sen. John Cornyn, the Texan who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, it seemed essential to recruit vote-getting moderates such as Crist. They would stop a bad situation from turning worse. In Washington’s political calculations, upstarts like Rubio didn’t compute — which is why the NRSC endorsed Crist as soon as he officially declared his candidacy in May 2009.

#page#Rubio admits his challenge made little sense, at least on paper. “Running against a sitting governor is not the logical next step up the political ladder,” he says. “The only people who thought I could win lived in my home, and four of them were under the age of 10.” That isn’t entirely true: Rubio enjoyed the support of a few funders and strategists who had gotten to know him when he was speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives. To them, the young Cuban American had star power. “I never thought he wasn’t going to win,” insists Bertica Morris, an Orlando businesswoman. She belongs to the “6-percenters,” a loosely organized group that backed Rubio when he was polling in single digits. Today, Rubio describes the experience of starting his campaign as invigorating. “When you’re 30-some points down and have the entire party establishment against you, it forces you to answer an important question: Are you running because you want to be somebody or because you believe in something?”

So the believer hit the road. He searched for converts across Florida, appearing before just about any gathering of Republicans that would host him. In these small venues, Rubio put his passion on display. His earnest calls for a return to principled conservatism were a tonic for grassroots Republicans who saw a connection between ideological drift and electoral defeat. In straw polls of the GOP faithful, Rubio started to rack up lopsided victories over Crist: Pasco County Republicans favored him by a margin of 73 to 9; Highland County Republicans went for him by a vote of 75 to 1. These results had no formal implications, yet they signaled Rubio’s budding potential and Crist’s unexpected vulnerability. In mid-June, Rubio secured an endorsement from Sen. Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, whose Senate Conservatives Fund has played an outsized role in this year’s GOP primaries. Rubio also appeared on the cover of National Review’s September 7 issue. By the fall, his candidacy was no longer a local phenomenon, but a cause for conservatives around the country.

Yet he still faced long odds. On September 15 of this year, he spoke at a fundraiser at the Alaqua Country Club of Longwood and recalled a visit to the same room a year earlier. “I couldn’t tell you how I was going to raise $100,000, let alone $20 million,” he said. This was the biggest question surrounding Rubio’s bid for the Senate: Could he come up with the cash to pay for it? Many assumed that Crist, an accomplished collector of political contributions, would suck the financial life out of Rubio’s scrappy effort. “For a long time, we survived day to day,” says Rubio. His appeal nevertheless grew. It even came across in direct mail. “The first time you go into the mail, you’re supposed to lose money,” says Jose Mallea, Rubio’s campaign manager. “But we were making money right away.” The donations swelled from a trickle to a flood. All along, small-dollar donors have sustained the campaign. Today Rubio claims more than 85,000 financial supporters whose average gift is $83.25. As early as last fall, these small checks were starting to add up. When the third quarter closed, Rubio announced that he had taken in about $1 million. Suddenly, the underdog had to be taken seriously.

Crist remained a formidable opponent, but he had already committed what may have been his fatal blunder. Early in 2009, he supported Obama’s stimulus package and even hugged the president at a rally in Florida. From that moment, his fortunes were tied to Obama’s. So as Republicans who had been inclined to give the new president a chance turned decisively against him, and as voters in general started to waver, Crist became less acceptable to his party’s base and also looked like less of a shoo-in for the general election.

#page#By the end of the year, Rubio had noticed a difference. “A lot of my early speeches were about whether I was viable,” he says. “After a while, I was able to focus on the direction of the country.” In December, a Rasmussen poll of likely primary voters showed the race tied. The next month, a different survey put Rubio slightly ahead. By March, the conservative insurgent had gained a startling 17-point lead over the governor. It appeared as though Rubio wasn’t just going to edge Crist in a tight race, but could possibly embarrass him in a blowout.

Around this time, word began to circulate that Crist might abandon the GOP. The governor denied these reports, but they persisted. On April 8, his campaign released a testy statement that denounced the speculation and accused Rubio’s team of spreading lies: “This should completely and utterly put to rest any of the unfounded rumors coming from the Rubio campaign that Governor Crist would run as anything other than the Republican that he is.” Before the month was out, however, Crist contradicted that statement. First, to the irritation of his former allies and the applause of teachers’ unions, he vetoed a GOP-sponsored education-reform bill that he once had favored. Then he quit the party and announced that he would run as an independent.

The move buoyed Crist for a while. He retained the support of many Republican loyalists, even as his shift to the left drew a second look from Democrats. He hired Josh Isay, a former chief of staff to Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who had helped guide his party to a strong Senate majority. As spring turned to summer, polls suggested that Crist might be able to stitch together a winning coalition of moderates. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico also provided a boost. It compelled Crist to change his position on offshore drilling from pro to con, but it also kept him in the news, looking like a man of action and decision at a time when Rubio was still working to improve his name recognition. “We just couldn’t break through,” says a Rubio adviser.

But Crist’s decision to run as an independent meant he couldn’t make the most of this opportunity. If he had stayed in the GOP, he could have taken an aggressive stand against the Obama administration’s handling of the disaster, in the manner of Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Republican governor. As an independent, he had to court liberal-leaning voters, and an anti-Obama strategy could have alienated them. Meanwhile, Rubio faced his own challenges from the spill. His refusal to change his mind about offshore drilling demonstrated steadfastness, but it was a gamble. As Floridians panicked about blackened beaches and vanishing tourists, Rubio said that the disaster should be viewed in the same way as a plane crash — an opportunity to learn about and improve an essential industry’s safety, not an occasion to put it out of business.

When the crisis came to an end with a whimper, Rubio was ready for his sprint to the finish. The August 24 Republican primary was uncontested, yet more than a million Florida Republicans turned out to cast ballots for Rubio. Only 918,000 Democrats bothered with their own primary, even though the eventual nominee, Kendrick Meek, had to put down a spirited challenge from billionaire real-estate mogul Jeff Greene.

A few days later, Crist’s flip-flopping finally caught up with him. For months he had insisted that he would have voted against Obamacare if he had been in the Senate. Occasionally he soft-pedaled his stand, seeming to prefer reform to repeal, but he had planted himself firmly in the opposition. On August 27, however, he crossed the aisle. “I would have voted for it,” he said in an interview with Central Florida News 13. Even for a politician of Crist’s stripe, the reversal was breathtaking. He later claimed that he had misspoken, but the damage was done. Crist had spent the summer insisting that his born-again nonpartisanship would enable him to serve as an “honest broker” in Washington. Now he looked like just another glad-hander who would say anything to get elected. One of Rubio’s longstanding quips took on new meaning: “It’s hard to debate a guy who is still debating himself.”

#page#Crist has tried to turn the tables by accusing Rubio of his own reversals — on Arizona’s immigration law, for instance. When it was first enacted, Rubio expressed skepticism, but following its modifications, he pulled back. While he doesn’t favor a similar law for Florida, he refuses to condemn Arizona, noting that its long border with Mexico makes its immigration problems unique and perhaps more pressing. “I don’t believe it’s a model, but I do think it’s a wake-up call for the federal government,” he says. He adds, however, that if more states pass laws like Arizona’s, Washington will feel even less of an obligation to deal with border security.

Rubio’s favorite subject is American exceptionalism. It’s at the heart of virtually everything he says, whether he’s addressing a classroom of college students at Southeastern University in Lakeland or trying to summarize his candidacy in the one minute Univision allotted for closing remarks. “America is not just different, America is better,” he says. “People didn’t vote for a left-of-center, Western European social democracy — and that’s not what Obama sold us, either.” He warns that if the United States stays on its present course, debt and taxes will sap the entrepreneurial spirit that has defined it from the start. “Big government doesn’t hurt the people who have it made,” he says. “Big government wipes out the people who are trying to make it.”

If there’s a flaw in his well-practiced delivery, it’s that he speaks too quickly. “I hope you’re taping this because I talk fast,” he said on September 15, at a meeting with the editorial board of the Tampa Tribune. Rubio has a lot to say, but it can often sound like he’s in a hurry. Rushed or not, he’s far from complacent as the race enters its last phase: “We can’t take anything for granted.”

At long last he may be the favorite, but he’s never been more than a plurality frontrunner in a three-way race. His best showing in any poll is 43 percent. He’ll certainly benefit from an energized base, as well as a party infrastructure that will make sure its members put out yard signs and turn in their absentee ballots. Crist forfeited these advantages when he went solo. Yet the governor still has a lot of money in the bank (including some that the NRSC gave him), and three-way races are always hard to call. If Meeks continues to run weakly, Democratic bosses could yank their support and try to turn Florida into the Crist–Rubio showdown that was supposed to take place in the Republican primary.

One thing is for sure: Marco Rubio will retain the fervent support of conservatives, in Florida and nationwide. They’ve already concluded that he speaks their language.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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