PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Marco Rubio laughs at the idea, heard from some pundits recently, that he's the "Republican Obama." "I'm not sure people even want to be the Democrat Obama these days," he says. For Rubio, the unlikely front-runner in the Florida Republican Senate primary race, the label is a measure of the unhappiness many people feel with their political choices at any given moment. "There's always this constant desire for new people to enter the process," he explains. Now, he's the new guy.
Challenging the head of your party is not necessarily the path to political glory, but that's what Rubio has done in the race against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Last May, when Rubio, the former speaker of the state House, announced his candidacy, the first three polls done in the race showed him trailing Crist by 35, 37 and 31 points, respectively.
These days, the most recent poll, done by Public Policy Polling in early March, shows Rubio up by 32 points -- an astonishing 60-plus-point swing. In a conversation before a speech to the conservative Club for Growth here in Palm Beach, Rubio downplays his lead. He didn't get upset when the polls showed him behind, he says, so he's "not going to get too excited about them with six months to go and we're up by a few points." But Rubio knows the numbers reflect something happening with the voters.
The Obama agenda scares people. "I do not believe the president fully supports the free-enterprise system that I support," Rubio says. Florida Republicans, Rubio believes, know in their hearts that Crist "is not going to go to Washington and stand up to this agenda and be part of offering an alternative -- he's just not going to do it." Crist's recent praise for the stimulus and tendency to accommodate Obamacare suggest Rubio is right.
Rubio watched closely as Republican Scott Brown pulled off a political miracle in Massachusetts. First, Rubio learned how incredibly intense a high-profile race can become down the stretch -- he better be ready for that. But more importantly, he saw how critical it is to "focus like a laser on a couple of key issues."
"In that campaign, (Brown) was often tempted to get involved in side issues; he was invited to join (Democrat Martha Coakley) in the weeds and talk about things that didn't matter," Rubio says. "But the fact that he focused on the important issues, the things that mattered to real people in the real world, is ultimately what got him over the top, and it's what we're going to strive to do in our election as well."
For Rubio, that means the economic issues -- "national debt, job creation, how our tax code and government spending are discouraging job creation, and entitlement reform. Those are the central issues of the moment."
That doesn't mean cultural matters are unimportant. One clue with Rubio is the rubber wristband he wears signifying concern for "life issues." (Another wristband reflects his interest in autism.) And in the 2008 GOP primaries, Rubio supported Mike Huckabee, a favorite of pro-lifers and evangelicals. "I didn't necessarily think he was the favorite or quite frankly had a great chance to win," Rubio says of the former Arkansas governor. "I really thought he did a good job of making the compelling argument that the social and moral well-being of people is linked to their economic well-being." Today, Rubio counts Huckabee as "a great friend and a good ally."
Early in the Florida race, Rubio won the support of conservative hero Sen. Jim DeMint, but much of the Washington GOP establishment, including Senate re-election chief Sen. John Cornyn, reflexively took Crist's side against the young challenger. Today, Rubio says things are fine, but he still sounds a little cool. "It's never been adversarial," he says of his relationship with establishment lawmakers. "I don't really know them. I've met Sen. Cornyn a couple of times and have respect for him. I have respect for (minority) leader (Mitch) McConnell."
Rubio, born in Miami to Cuban exiles in 1971, is about as fresh a face as you get in a Senate race. He gives a tremendous speech about his love for American free enterprise and opportunity. Politically savvy Republicans across the country are falling in love with him, but they're also realizing they don't really know a lot about him. That's what campaigns are for. By the time Election Day comes around, they're hoping Marco Rubio will turn out to be every bit as good as he seems.