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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Last year, Florida Republican Charlie Crist was one of the nation's most popular governors. When he announced he wanted to run for his state's open Senate seat, it looked like a sure thing.
Oh, what a difference a year makes. Crist now has two big problems: an angry electorate and the surging campaign of conservative Republican Marco Rubio, Florida's former House Speaker.
From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: Most here in Florida believe the turning point - the incident that turned an easy race for Charlie Crist into a battle - came a year ago this week. It was before either Crist or Marco Rubio had officially announced they were running for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Mel Martinez.
President Obama appeared in Fort Myers, at a rally to help pass his stimulus package. Appearing alongside, even giving him a brief hug at one point, Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist. For conservative Republicans here - and for Rubio - it was unforgivable.
Mr. MARCO RUBIO (Republican Senatorial Candidate): It's hard to believe that it's been a year since the Obama-Crist stimulus package happened in this very building.
(Soundbite of booing)
Mr. RUBIO: Time flies when you're spending $787 billion.
(Soundbite of applause)
ALLEN: There were 400 or 500 people in the hall, far less than the 1,500 who turned out for President Obama a year ago. Many were members of Florida's active Tea Party community from Naples and Punta Gorda. A busload came down from Tampa.
There was a lot of anger in the crowd: about taxes, spending and the intrusion of government into citizens' lives. Rubio played to it, taking note of the blizzard this week that largely shut down Washington, D.C.
Mr. RUBIO: The Congress can't meet to vote on things? You know what we think? I think this blizzards the best thing that's happened to the American economy in 12 months.
(Soundbite of applause)
ALLEN: Rubio didn't go into specifics about what he would do if elected senator because, so far, he hasn't had to. In recent months, he's made up a 30-point deficit and now runs ahead of Crist in most polls. He's done that by tapping into anger at Washington and conservative discontent with the moderate Crist.
Despite his slide in the polls, Crist appears unruffled, making his rounds as governor, visiting schools and job centers and taking charge as Florida hospitals responded to the Haitian earthquake.
He was in Miami recently to announce he'd secured the federal government's commitment to pay for medical costs of evacuees from Haiti.
Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): You know, there's a time to talk about politics, and there's a time to talk about people. And what we're doing here today is talking about people: their needs, their wants, their desires and how government is supposed to provide for them. And that's a much more important message for us to hold on to and understand and respect. I'm not really concerned about poll numbers; I'm concerned about the people.
ALLEN: The divisive race for the Republican Senate nomination has cheered Democrats, especially Congressman Kendrick Meek, who seems likely to win his party's nomination.
Rubio has been picking up endorsements from conservatives outside of Florida, people like anti-tax leader Grover Norquist and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. And next week, he'll receive national exposure as the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Crist, meanwhile, has struggled with the moderate label plus his embrace of Obama and $4 billion in federal stimulus money. Interviewed by CBS before the Super Bowl on Miami Beach, Crist gave what's become his standard reply to charges from conservatives that he's a Republican in Name Only, a RINO.
Gov. CRIST: Well, if I'm a RINO, then so is Ronald Reagan. I mean, I'm a less-taxing, less-spending, less-government, more-freedom kind of guy. And I just take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to government. And if that's not what the people want, they'll let me know. But I'm confident that it is. I really am.
ALLEN: At this week's Rubio rally, there was widespread discontent with Charlie Crist, but most people I spoke to said they still don't know enough about Marco Rubio.
David Stitch from North Fort Myers said his main concern is the economy.
Mr.�DAVID STITCH: What about jobs? I don't see any of this stimulus money going to promote jobs. I just don't see it. I've been looking for work for two years.
ALLEN: What do you think about Charlie Crist? Was he right to take the money?
Mr.�STITCH: To be honest with you, I think any state in the union, if they don't take what's offered to them, would be wrong. But it's how they manage the money once they get it.
ALLEN: It's still six months until Florida's August primary, so a lot can happen, especially key will be money. And that's where Crist has the edge. Currently, he has about $7 million on hand against Rubio's $2 million, important in a big state with 20 media markets.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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