The midterm election is still nearly a year away, but national attention has already begun to focus on Florida and a high-profile race for the Senate.
Florida's GOP Gov. Charlie Crist is hoping to move from Tallahassee to Washington, but his first challenge is to win his party's nomination against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.
Rubio, a conservative Republican, has been gaining on Crist, and the Crist campaign has now begun to fight back.
On a weeknight evening at a Republican Party meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Crist is doing something he does well: meeting voters. He works the room of some 300 people, stopping to shake hands with, seemingly, nearly everyone. The ever-sunny and suntanned governor is upbeat, but as he conceded recently, "It's been a rough patch."
Much of the rough patch has to do with Crist's support for President Obama's stimulus package. In February, Crist welcomed Obama to a stimulus rally in Fort Myers with an onstage hug — an image that Rubio's campaign has used relentlessly.
Afterward, Crist tried to distance himself from the stimulus, saying at one point that he didn't endorse it. That brought howls of protest from conservative opponents, and a "pants on fire" rating from the St. Petersburg Times newspaper. So now, Crist seems content to just defend his record.
"I think what's clear is I support it," Crist says. "And I think it was important to do so, and the right thing for Florida."
Crist notes that stimulus money was accepted by every other Republican governor and voted into the budget nearly unanimously by Republicans in the state Legislature. But that hasn't mollified some conservatives in Florida, including activists such as Javier Manjarres.
Conservative Support For Rival
Manjarres has been pushing Broward County's Republican committee to conduct a straw poll on the Senate race. More than a dozen such polls have been held in recent months in Florida counties, and Rubio has won them all. Manjarres says it shows which candidate has the support of party activists.
"They're the ones that go out and volunteer, that conduct the walks, that make the phone calls, that energize other people to do the same," Manjarres says. "They're going to promote Marco. They're not going to promote Gov. Crist."
Rubio has also been picking up support nationally, with a recent endorsement by the Club for Growth, an influential conservative group. Meanwhile, Crist has seen his approval ratings drop, and Rubio has surged to within 10 points of the governor in one recent poll. All of which has galvanized Crist, who has reappeared on the hustings.
"I'm running for the Senate because I think Washington, D.C., needs a dose of Florida common sense," Crist said in an appearance this week in Fort Lauderdale. "They are missing the boat."
Crist made no mention of the stimulus, substituting lots of criticism of the Obama administration's spending and the health care overhaul.
"I'm not just a guy who's running for office and promising you stuff. I'm a guy who's done it," Crist says. "You can look at our record and understand what we'll do if you send us to Washington, because I don't change my stripes from day to day."
Up to now, Crist's Senate campaign has mostly focused on fundraising. That's something else he does well, with more than $6 million in the bank, a 4-to-1 advantage over Rubio. Now the campaign itself is ramping up, as staff and supporters criticize Rubio and his record, questioning his credentials on gun rights, immigration and government spending.
Republican political consultant Jaime Miller says he believes that Rubio has yet to confront the challenges of turning a popular grass-roots movement into a winning campaign — and he should know. Miller managed another Republican Senate campaign a few years ago: that of former representative and popular conservative Katherine Harris.
Miller says he's not sure Rubio can close the gap with Crist in name recognition and fundraising.
"Marco Rubio really has been out there for about five or six months throwing hand grenades at Gov. Crist, and Crist has not responded," Miller says. "I think you're going to see a much more aggressive campaign from Charlie Crist over the next 10 months.
"In that type of headwind, I think it will be really tough for Marco Rubio to make up the remaining ground."
Rubio supporters are hoping to tap into the tide of conservative unrest around the country, bringing its energy, endorsements and money to bear in Florida. Crist is betting his connection to his voters in his state will prove strong enough to pull him through.