Rubio's Great Test Ahead

Rubio's Great Test Ahead

By David Paul Kuhn - August 25, 2010

Marco Rubio's real test begins today. He is the GOP's great Cuban hope. A potential Republican bridge to Hispanic voters. The most likely Republican VP nominee in 2012. Even the presidency is attainable someday. It's all within reach for Rubio.

But first Rubio must win the Florida Senate race. Rubio won his party primary Tuesday night. But that's surely not what Rubio most savored. Rubio's nomination was assured. Rep. Kendrick Meek's win was not, at least not weeks ago. Meek's Democratic primary victory has brought Rubio closer to the Senate. And by consequence, Rubio is now nearer to becoming a political superstar.

Comparisons between Rubio and Barack Obama are common. Like Obama, Rubio is straight from partisan central casting. He is conservative, Hispanic, young, smart and telegenic, a Floridian with working class roots. Political insiders instantly knew, like the young Obama, that Rubio had the right stuff (for campaign framing, that is).

What differentiates Rubio from Obama is the obstacle ahead. Obama breezed into the Senate in 2004. Rubio is in the fight of his political life, and perhaps for a national political life. Yet he also brings more experience to the race than Obama had in 2004. Rubio is the former speaker of the Florida State House.

Between Rubio and his GOP dream is Charlie Crist. In April, Crist pulled a Lieberman. The Florida governor realized he could not win his party's primary. So Crist went independent. He quickly became a conservative bête noir, much as liberals viewed Joe Lieberman in 2006. But Crist is hardly assured to mimic Lieberman's happy ending.

Rubio has only begun to challenge Crist. His choice of tactics, framing Crist as the same old pol, has the potential to resonate today. This is a year of historically low approval ratings for Washington. And Crist's move was very Washington. Rubio, like all Republicans, also benefits from massive GOP tailwinds this year.

Meek's victory adds another fresh twist. The Democratic establishment cannot circle around Crist, as the Republican establishment did Lieberman. Obama will be compelled to at least passively support Meek, despite Meek's long shot status. Meek was loyal to Hillary Clinton in 2008. But Meek is a party man. The cold shoulder would also make for bad theater. Meek is the only black candidate this year with any chance at serving in the Senate. The upper chamber is on track to have no black senators by 2011.

Yet the real race is between Rubio and Crist. The matchup is a dead heat, according to the RealClearPolitics average. It's a 35 to 34 margin, technically favoring Rubio. Meek stands at a distant 17 percent.

The fundraising race reflects the same dynamic. Rubio has raised $12.8 million and Crist $12.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Meek has raised $7 million. Rubio remains a target for serious GOP investment. Meek's uphill climb could lead key Democratic fundraisers to gravitate to Crist. Little party money might flow to Meek for this same reason. It's no small problem for Meek. Florida's media markets are notoriously costly.

Yet it's still a simple matter of electoral math. Crist will have more trouble wooing Democrats with Meek in the race. Crist must win independents, a substantial minority of Democrats and at least a fifth of the Republican vote to hold off Rubio. Rubio, by contrast, will likely need at least 85 percent of the Republican vote behind him to head into Election Day with confidence.

It will be a difficult courtship for both candidates. Rubio finished well in Rasmussen's latest poll. It positioned him ahead by 5 points. Still, Rubio only won about two thirds of Republican likely voters in the poll. Meanwhile, independents split between Rubio and Crist. Neither candidate is where they need to be.

Thus, this will not be the traditional race for central Florida and with it, the political center. Crist seeks to paint Rubio as far-right. He will tout Rubio's Tea Party support in Democratic south Florida. And Rubio will tout Crist's turncoat status in conservative north Florida. But Crist cannot surrender the north and Rubio cannot ignore the south.

Rubio certainly needs the center most. He must prove he can win the mainstream in order to undercut Democrats effort to paint him as extreme. But Rubio also hopes to win a measure of Latinos from Democrats. And that's no sure thing. Republican Mel Martinez won his Florida Senate seat in 2004 with about six in 10 Hispanics, only a slightly larger share than George W. Bush earned statewide that year.

What this means, in the end, is that the potential superstar could easily see it all slip away. Rubio is one of the strongest GOP candidates in the country. Yet he faces one of the most difficult races in the coming months. Crist's abandonment of the GOP assured that. Now Democrats have a chance to stop Rubio before he's a contender for the big show. You can bet Republicans wish they had, somehow, stopped Obama six years ago.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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