MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Midterm elections are still a year away, but national attention has already begun to focus on a Senate race in Florida. The state's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, is hoping to move from Tallahassee to Washington. His first challenge, of course, is to win his party's nomination. Former State House Speaker Marco Rubio is a conservative Republican, and he's been gaining on Crist. Now, the Crist campaign has begun to fight back, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: It's a weeknight evening at a Republican Party meeting in Fort Lauderdale and Charlie Crist is doing something he does well: meeting voters.
CARL: Governor, how are you tonight?
Governor Charlie Crist (Republican, Florida): Carl, how are you? My favorite guy.
CARL: We're recording that because it's very important.
Gov. CRIST: Keep it going. It's going great.
ALLEN: He works the room of some 300 people, stopping to shake hands with, it seems, nearly everyone. The ever-sunny and suntanned governor is upbeat, but as he conceded recently, it's been a rough patch.
Much of it has to do with his support for President Obama's stimulus package. In February, Crist welcomed Mr. Obama to a stimulus rally in Fort Myers with an onstage hug, an image the campaign of Republican challenger Marco Rubio has used relentlessly.
Afterwards, 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. So now, Crist seems mostly content to just defend his record.
Gov. CRIST: Oh, I think what's clear is I support it. And I think it was important to do so, and I think it was the right thing for Florida.
ALLEN: But that hasn't mollified some conservatives in Florida, activists like Javier Manjarres. Manjarres has been pushing Broward County's Republican committee to conduct a straw poll on the Senate race. More than a dozen such polls had been held in recent months in Florida counties, and Marco Rubio has won them all. Manjarres says it shows which candidate has the support of party activists.
Mr. JAVIER MANJARRES (Activist): 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. They're going to promote Marco. They're not going to promote Governor Crist.
ALLEN: Rubio has also been picking up support nationally with a recent endorsement by the influential conservative group Club for Growth.
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's reappeared on the hustings.
Gov. CRIST: I'm running for the Senate because I think that Washington, D.C. needs a dose of Florida common sense.
(Soundbite of applause)
Gov. CRIST: They are missing the boat.
ALLEN: Speaking this week in Fort Lauderdale, Crist made no mention of the stimulus, substituting lots of criticism for the Obama administration's spending and the health care overhaul.
Gov. CRIST: I'm not just a guy who's running for office and promising you stuff, I'm a guy who's actually done it. 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.
ALLEN: 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 four-to-one 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 believes that Rubio has yet to confront the challenges of turning a popular grassroots movement into a winning campaign. And he should know - Miller managed another Republican Senate campaign a few years ago, that of former congresswoman and popular conservative Katherine Harris. And Miller is not sure Rubio can close the gap with Crist in name recognition and fundraising.
Mr. JAIME MILLER (Republican Political Consultant): Marco Rubio really has been out there for about five or six months throwing hand grenades at Governor Crist, and Governor Crist does not responded. I figure 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'll be really tough for Marco Rubio to make up the remaining ground.
ALLEN: 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. Charlie Crist is betting his connection to his voters in his state will prove strong enough to pull him through.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.