U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is an unlikely contender in northwest Florida, a strip of the Bible Belt closer to Alabama than his hometown of Miami.
For the young, Cuban-American politician, Panhandle voters could be a tough crowd: They've come across few Hispanic candidates and often view South Florida as a cesspool of incivility and corruption.
But in a Republican primary that's shifted from a cakewalk for Gov. Charlie Crist to a referendum on whether he has sold his Republican soul, many voters in Northwest Florida say they don't care if Rubio speaks Spanish -- as long as he speaks "true conservative."
"Listening to you makes me feel like there's hope," said retired teacher Anne McLemore after hearing Rubio at a Republican women's club in Miramar Beach. She added later, "He was saying all the things I need to hear."
Rubio repeatedly hit the highlights of the conservative agenda in a two-day Panhandle tour last week that took him from a Pensacola diner that boasts "no grits, no glory" to a wood-paneled Best Western in DeFuniak Springs. Offshore oil drilling? Check. No amnesty for illegal immigrants? Check. Limited government, gun rights and term limits? Check, check, check.
He's been making road trips like this one for months, introducing himself to Republican activists in every corner of a state where he is largely unknown outside of South Florida.
The shoe-leather campaign along with national publicity and a solid fundraising run have made him a credible candidate against the sitting governor.
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