Politics & Government

Florida's three-way Senate race produces a tea party hybrid

Depending on who you talk to, the latest upset by a tea party-backed conservative candidate either signals a Republican surge in November or bodes well for Democrats vying for mainstream votes.

In Florida, the nation's largest political battleground, the lessons from the primary season that wrapped up Tuesday are even harder to discern.

The state featured one of the earliest and most dramatic battles for the proverbial soul of the Republican Party when a grass-roots favored conservative, Marco Rubio, overtook the moderate Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race. Crist bowed out of the GOP primary to avoid a rout and is now running as an independent against Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek in the Nov. 2 general election.

But the unprecedented, three way-race in Florida defies the classic tea-party narrative, in which an ideologically pure political outsider triumphs over the weak-kneed establishment.

Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House, is no political rookie. The anti-Crist television blitz by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that began Wednesday and two new polls showing Rubio ahead suggest the sitting governor is becoming the underdog in this contest.

Crist is even trying to co-opt some of the anti-establishment fervor associated with some tea-party supporters who relish asserting their independence from the political party system.

"We've seen some elections across the country -- another one yesterday -- where you have a certain element of the Republican party that's been hijacked," Crist said Wednesday in Miami. "I think the reality is you've got the hard-right candidate. You've got the hard-left candidate. Where's the common sense candidate? Well, that's what our candidacy represents."

All three Senate contenders are slated to face off Friday, when the Spanish-language television network Univisión airs the first three-man debate at 11 p.m. in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and the Fort Myers-Naples area.

In Delaware, Tuesday's victory by tea party-backed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell over the state's longest serving congressman was the latest high-profile defeat for the political status quo.

Marcos Sendon, president of a tea party group called South Florida Conservative, said O'Donnell's win lifted his hopes for a GOP wave in Florida, from Rubio and gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott at the top of the ticket on down.

To read the complete article, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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