Matt Towery

Rubio has certainly opened that door by airing television ads this week. But if Crist runs a conventional campaign, Rubio may have consolidated his lead by the spring or summer such that no amount of tough ads could save Crist by then. I still say this race will tighten up, but only if the Crist team gets moving now.

Either way, this phenomenal shift in voter sentiment in such a marquee race recalls columns I was writing last spring.

The "Tea Party" movement is for real. Moreover, it symbolizes the immense irritation among Republicans, who feel that both the Democrats and their own party have become big-spending elitists who are totally out of touch with the public.

The problem for the GOP is that a clear and strong shift to its more conservative -- and natural -- base is a gamble for the fall elections. For now, it looks like the critical swing "independent" voters have run from the Democratic Party over a series of issues, including perhaps most prominently federal spending and health care reform.

This could mean that no matter how conservative a GOP nominee for a particular U.S. Senate or congressional seat is in a competitive state or district, he or she could potentially win. In fact, the argument could be made that conservative voters will turn out so heavily that the influence of independent voters may be diluted.

Then there is the other side of the equation. Things can change quickly these days. What if unemployment drops significantly, the gross domestic product picks up, retail starts to recover and the stock market stays on its current high? Remember that many of these "swing states" voted for Barack Obama. In the case of Florida, Obama's margin of victory over John McCain was only about 1 percent, though he did win.

Of course, in Florida the leading Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate really isn't even viewed as having a chance against either Rubio or Crist. That's another issue for Crist to overcome, as it looks like the more conservative Rubio would win the general election more or less as easily as the more moderate Crist would. In other states, electability might be an important concern for a Republican nominee. Not here.

These are changing times on the American political landscape. And once again, Florida appears to be leading the way in showing us what direction the Republican Party will go.

Matt Towery

Matt Towery is a pollster, attorney, businessman and former elected official. He served as campaign strategist for Congressional, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns. His latest book is Newsvesting: Use News and Opinion to Grow Your Personal Wealth. Follow him on Twitter @MattTowery