TAMPA -- Conservative Marco Rubio enjoyed a good September in his race against popular, liberal Florida Governor Charlie Crist for the 2010 Republican nomination for the Florida U.S. Senate recently vacated by Mel Martinez.
Though he's trailed Crist by double figures in polls of Florida Republicans, when it comes to the people active in the Florida Party, Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, has wowed them with speeches full of values such as fiscal restraint, social conservatism, strength abroad, and opposition to massive government intrusions into the economy such as cap and trade, which Crist fancies. In straw votes among eight county Republican executive committees, Rubio has swamped Crist 358 to 32. In Hernando County, just one county away from Crist's home county of Pinellas, Rubio pitched a 46-0 shutout.
In other Republican groups Rubio has also done well. He charmed the ladies of the Northwest Orange County (Orlando) Republican Women Federated 49-3, and those of the Republican Women's Club of Duval County (Jacksonville) 65-4.
The Volusia County (Daytona Beach) executive committee passed a resolution condemning Crist for supporting Obama's stimulus piñata. A similar censure resolution lost in Palm Beach County on a tie vote.
So the folks who do the day-to-day work of the party, and who follow political developments most closely, like Rubio and have little use for the shallow and opportunistic Crist. In these circles Crist is sometimes referred to as "Wind-sock Charlie" for a history of predicating his political actions on the last focus group report he read. The same polls that show Crist ahead among all Republicans, show that among those familiar with both Crist and Rubio the race is dead even.
Rubio has been getting some help from the national conservative press, where he's seen as the great right hope in this race. John J. Miller did a profile of Rubio in National Review, calling him a rising star in the Florida GOP with an unambiguously conservative voting record. Rubio's gotten positive mentions in Human Events, as well as in the Weekly Standard blog. Regular TAS readers know of Rubio and how he stacks up against the pretend conservative Crist. Many Florida newspapers last weekend carried a column by George Will in which Will not only whooped up Rubio's conservative virtues, and chastised national Republicans for supporting Crist, but flatly predicted a Rubio victory in the primary next August.
One group Rubio continues to do poorly with is D.C. insiders. At a Sarasota event last week, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush praised Rubio's biography and platforms and criticized the National Republican Senatorial Committee, headed by Texas Senator John Cornyn, for endorsing Crist just hours after Crist announced his candidacy last spring. Rubio had already announced his candidacy.
"I think he (Rubio) should be given a chance," Bush said. "I think the idea that the national party should pick a winner a year and a half before an election is the wrong way to go."
But the NRSC is unrepentant. I asked NRSC communications director Brian Walsh if he and Cornyn were familiar with Bush's invitation for them to butt out of the Florida race. He allowed as how they were, but they've declined Jeb's request that they take a hike.
"We did see that statement," Walsh told me. "The former governor has certainly more than earned the right to share his thoughts. But the NRSC believes Governor Crist is the best candidate to maintain the checks and balances needed in the Senate."
It's truly hard to see how a politician like Crist, who has supported Obama's stimulus package, who's enthusiastic about cap and trade and other costly enviro-disasters, and who's as silent as the tomb about conservative social issues, could in any way be a check on the Obama socialist agenda. He's more of an enabler. This is probably why a friend of Rubio's told me he had come up with a great slogan for Crist's campaign: "Send Charlie to Washington -- he'll fit right in."
The claimed issue, Cornyn has said and Walsh reiterated in our conversation, is electability. "Charlie Crist is the candidate with the best chance to win," Cornyn recently told the New York Times. "This is not to disparage Marco Rubio. He has a bright future."
Pretty patronizing thing to say about a guy who has a strong conservative record in the Florida Legislature, and has, in stark contrast to Crist, walked the walk of what the Cornyns of the world say are Republican principles.
The notion that Crist has a big electoral edge over Rubio is right peculiar. The most likely Democratic candidate for the Senate seat is Miami Congressman Kendrick Meek, a young, very liberal but not very articulate Obama wannabe, who has little support outside of South Florida and would stand little chance in center-right Florida against either Crist or Rubio.
"Winning Senate seats is our priority," Walsh told me. "We want to keep the Florida seat in the Republican column. The voters in Florida will be the ones who make the final decision there."
Walsh brushes aside concerns about Crist's walks on the liberal side and conservative concerns that he would be a very unreliable vote in the Senate on matters that concern conservatives. He continued his "deal with the devil" argument.
"We don't have a litmus test," Walsh said. "We want as many people with R's behind their name in the Senate as we can get. If you're concerned about cap and trade, we need to be sure that Mitch McConnell is the Senate leader. Nothing is voted on that the Senate leader doesn't allow on the floor."
True enough. But it was clearly unnecessary for the NRSC to put its thumb on the scale in Florida in favor of Crist, a man the conservative base of the Republican Party prays is not the future of the party. Cornyn and others in the national Republican establishment have created real enmity in the conservative base of the Florida party (and elsewhere where they've supported liberal candidates over conservatives). If only the conservative base could vote, neither Cornyn nor Crist could be elected assistant county rat-catcher anywhere in Florida. To them it is just one more example of the Republican Party sticking its thumb in the eyes of conservatives. Mention either Crist or Cornyn to these folks and I hear verbs and adjectives (and the odd gerund) I've rarely encountered since I was a Sixth Fleet sailor.
The race between Crist and Rubio has been described as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party in Florida. Rarely do primaries present so clear a choice between two candidates with different views on the proper role of government and how a good and just society can be achieved. But if the Machiavellian approach of the NRSC is to prevail (I don't believe it will), perhaps it should be described as a battle to determine if the Republican Party has a soul.
And if it's true there is no standard for support from the Republican establishment beyond having an R behind the name and good electoral prospects according to the political cognoscenti, then I have a bumper strip I recommend the NRSC send out with its fundraising letters. It reads: "Our liberals can beat your liberals."
How many do you want, Brian?