Campaign Crawlers

Reversal of Fortune

Rubio shows us the money.

By 4.12.10

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The last advantage that moderate to liberal Florida Governor Charlie Crist had in his race for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat against conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio is now gone. Crist is no longer the campaign finance champion. Rubio will have the money he needs to tell his story. And he, in stark contrast to Crist, has a story to tell in conservative 2010. 

When the counting had been done last week, Rubio's Q1 2010 campaign contribution haul of $3.6 million was more than three times the $1.1 million Crist took in over the same period. The money in this campaign has followed the polls, which now show former underdog Rubio ahead of Crist by somewhere between 11 and 32 points and ahead of Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, by double digits. The Crist campaign that started with a bang last spring, with lots of establishment endorsements and establishment cash, is well into its whimper stage. 

In the first reporting period last year, when it appeared that the then popular governor was the best bet to hold on to the Republican Senate seat Mel Martinez resigned from last summer, Crist took in the choke-a-horse total of $4.4 million, much of it from fat cats and out-of-town donors, compared to a downright puny $340,000 by Rubio. In Q3 of last year Rubio came up with a respectable $1 million, but still behind Crist's $2.5 million.

But while Crist was dialing for far more dollars than Rubio, Rubio was waging an aggressive retail campaign based on conservative themes of limited government, reduced federal spending, protecting personal freedom and the free market, and a strong foreign policy based on dealing firmly with America's enemies. This fits the mood of both Florida Republican voters, and an increasing number of Florida independents, far better than the mush of big government spending, support for costly and freedom-killing environmental programs such as cap and trade, and vaporous campaign slogans such as "let's send some Florida common sense to Washington" that have made up Crist's record as governor and his ineffective campaign. 

Florida Republicans, appalled and mobilized by the leftward lurch in Washington, haven't taken kindly to Crist's support of President Obama's $787 billion "Stimulus" slush fund, and have been susceptible to Rubio's assertion that Florida needs a real Republican to go to the U.S. Senate to vigorously oppose the Obama agenda, not to enable it as Crist has.

Crist's lead, more than 50 points at one point last spring, disappeared faster than beer at a frat party. His loss has been steady at between five and 10 points a month. The campaign cash has followed the same learning curve as the polls. By the forth quarter of '09 the totals were competitive, $1.76 million for Rubio and $2.1 million for Crist.

Until the New Year's dramatic financial reversal of fortune, Crist supporters, an increasingly endangered species, could and did say, "Look, the primary isn't until August 24 and Crist has a lot more money to tell his story and to define Rubio as something Florida Republicans don't want."

This line is inconvenienced by the fact that Crist, running on a moderate to liberal record in a conservative year, has no story to tell. Or at least not one grassroots Republicans (aka primary voters) are willing to believe. He's made several attempts to define Rubio as not a real conservative, and to claim that Rubio tried to enrich himself through the use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card when Rubio was Speaker.

The credit card accusations, denied by Rubio, were about all Crist wanted to talk about in his March 29 debate with Rubio on Fox News Sunday. Crist has gotten no traction with this. His popularity and poll numbers have steadily sunk over the weeks he's retailed these charges, and the money has rolled into Rubio's campaign.

With no record to run on, no discernible leadership skills or charisma, and, most importantly, no clearly stated notion of what he would like to accomplish as a U.S. Senator, Crist's only remaining option may be to go negative. But the charges he's been working against Rubio will be older than Bob Hope's jokes by primary day. Perhaps Crist should suspend all efforts to collect money to get his message out, and spend the time he saves in developing one.

The Rubio-Crist contest (which is quickly developing into a no-contest) is the most closely watched Senate race in the country, probably one of the most closely watched in decades. This is a good thing for conservatives. What clearer evidence could be found that an unambiguous and unapologetic conservative Republican can run and succeed on full-strength conservative principles over a "moderate," big-tent, I-feel-very-strongly-both-ways, milk toast Republican?

This one is so clear that maybe even the David Frums and David Brooks of the world can learn something from it. OK, I got carried away for a second. But there's a message here for just about everyone else.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.