U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio reveled in support from conservatives looking for a voice Wednesday in a part-fundraiser, part-pep rally that brought full circle one of the most stunning reversals in Florida politics.
It was Feb. 10, 2009, when his campaign rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, welcomed President Barack Obama to the Harborside Event Center in Fort Myers to pitch a proposed $787 billion antidote to the recession. The popular Republican governor and Democratic president put their arms around each other in a rare display of bipartisanship.
One year later, the hug has become the defining image of Crist's slumping campaign for the GOP's U.S. Senate nomination, and Rubio was the one grinning on the Fort Myers stage, reclaiming the turf as his own.
"From tea parties to marches, from New Jersey to Virginia, from Massachusetts and soon even here in Florida . . . all across this country people are making it very clear," Rubio told more than 300 people at the so-called hug rally sponsored by FreedomPAC, a conservative network group led by former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey. "What they're going to choose in 2010 are leaders who will stand up to this agenda and offer a clear alternative."
Armey was home sick, and the audience was significantly smaller than the 1,500 people who attended Obama's town hall-style meeting at the same venue last year. Though it was far from a raucous crowd, the mostly white, middle-aged people in the audience showed their enthusiasm, carrying American flags and signs that read "Attention Washington, I am not your ATM" and "Prescription: Our Gov't Needs A Bi-Partisan Enema."
"We're here because we want what's going on to stop," said Alice Pailthorp of Tampa. "No more big government. No more ridiculous things like cap-and-trade and Stimulus."
Rubio was ahead of Crist 47 to 44 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released late last month, though the three-percentage-point lead is well within the poll's margin of error. The governor still has a healthy advantage in fundraising, too.
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