TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republican Gov. Charlie Crist probably wasn't worried that literally embracing President Barack Obama back in February and strongly supporting the $787 billion federal stimulus package would hurt his U.S. Senate campaign.
Sure, the hardcore party base wasn't happy, but the appearance was an opportunity to win over Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans who voted for Obama. The president's approval ratings were high, and any Republican thinking about running for an open seat in 2010 stopped thinking about it when Crist signaled interest.
All except former House Speaker Marco Rubio. Political insiders said it wasn't logical to challenge an incumbent governor who had high approval ratings and could raise gobs of money. However, Rubio said it didn't make sense for the highest-profile Republican in Florida to embrace a Democratic president and a plan that would raise the federal deficit.
Now Rubio is gaining momentum as he reminds Republican voters of Crist's hug. And the same political insiders who downplayed Rubio are starting to think the unthinkable: Crist's campaign might be threatened by another Republican.
"I just knew that if we were true to ourselves and what we stand for, and we went out and told enough people about it, that we would begin to make progress and that's what's happening," Rubio said.
Rubio has swept 12 straw polls held by county Republican committees by enormous percentages. He nearly tripled his fundraising last quarter, topping the $1 million mark to provide a financial and psychological boost to his campaign. Conservative radio talk show hosts adore him, as well as party activists. He's been praised by conservative columnist George Will and endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Jim DeMint, R-S.C..
In two months, Crist's lead over Rubio in a Quinnipiac University poll shrunk from 29 percentage points to 15 points. Although it still doesn't mean Crist is in trouble.
"There's nothing to celebrate," Rubio said. "The truth is we're still behind. The only good news is we're not behind by as much as we used to be."
Rubio's rise is probably about to get more difficult as Crist pays more attention to him and to the race itself.
"Charlie really hasn't done much campaigning other than the fundraising, and Marco's been out there beating the bushes for it. I think that's why you're seeing this in the poll numbers. I don't see this as a great rejection of our governor," said Jamie Miller, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
A large part of that opportunity is pointing out the Crist appearance with Obama.
"I was horrified," Rubio said, adding that Crist canceled lunch at the governor's mansion with former Gov. Jeb Bush and other former governors to be with Obama. "This was more than just a courtesy greeting, this was an embrace and a support of $800 billion of deficit spending."
Crist says he has no regrets about appearing with Obama.
"I was happy and delighted to do so. I'm a civil guy. The president of the United States is the president of the United States," Crist said. "Especially when it's the first visit to Florida and I'm invited to be there. I have that kind of respect in my soul."
Rubio is positioning himself as the true conservative in the race, and he's winning over those paying attention. He's a gifted speaker who excites Republicans not just with delivery, but the substance of his remarks.
"He's more than articulate, he actually believes it. He is a Ronald Reagan/Jack Kemp Republican, the kind that understands why our values are good for every American regardless of where they are on the socio-economic scale," said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. "He just totally gets it. It's in his core."
Crist, on the other hand, has incredible political skills, but he's more about "poll-tested sound bites," Dinerstein said.
"He doesn't have the core beliefs," Dinerstein said. "That's not who he is."
While Rubio is talking in detail about federal spending and health care reform, Crist is boiling the issues down by describing them as "cockamamie" and "crazy."
But Crist does have lots of money, about $6 million in the bank compared with about $1 million for Rubio. Crist also has name recognition and the network built through four statewide campaigns, the last three of which he's won comfortably.
"That is just a huge plus," said David Winston, a Washington-based Republican pollster. "Rubio's clearly quite talented. Crist is a proven winner."
And Crist isn't going to let Rubio have the spotlight to himself for long. The governor has already begun running two radio ads attempting to distance himself from Obama by criticizing the president for trying to spend his way to prosperity, ignoring his own support of the stimulus package.
"I haven't devoted a lot of time to day-to-day campaigning and doing campaign speeches," Crist said. "As each day passes and we get closer to election day, we will continue to ratchet up. We have not begun to fight, but now we do."