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The challenger's challenge

Campaign 2010 | Marco Rubio and his conservative ideas have shaken up the Florida GOP. Now he's in a neck-and-neck race for a U.S. Senate seat and a chance to shake up Washington

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla.-At a July 15 town hall meeting at Sonny's Bar-B-Q in Panama City Beach, Fla., Sizzlin' Sweet Sauce on Smokey Ribs is just one of the hot items confronting Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio.

Rubio began his presentation by promising the packed lunchtime crowd he wanted to listen more than talk. Now he is getting an earful. "Sir, I'm a 30-year veteran of the U.S. government," says former Army soldier and federal marshal employee Joseph Wilds, 51, as he walks toward Rubio. "I've earned the right to speak out."

Wilds, wearing flip-flops and a red, white, and blue Harley-Davidson T-shirt, backs up this right by mentioning his Vietnam veteran father and a World War II veteran grandfather. "How are you, an individual, going to go up there and make changes?"

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"Up there" is Congress, where Rubio, just 39, hopes to bolster the Republican minority's conservative wing in the Senate by winning a seat this November. Despite being weary after making five campaign stops in the last 24 hours, Rubio leans into the question with a dark-eyed stare: "There is no way I can do that by myself."

The answer, delivered in the direct manner that Rubio has become known for on the campaign trail, does not stop Wilds, who edges even closer to Rubio. "Most politicians, they say what everybody wants to hear, and then when they get into office they don't hear what we have to say. How are you . . ."

"Different?" Rubio finishes the question. "That question comes up everywhere."

It is a question even Rubio asked of himself more than a year ago when he first decided to challenge moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist for the Senate seat of retiring Republican Mel Martinez.

Rubio hit a Florida nerve. He turned Crist's 35-point poll lead (and $4 million fundraising advantage) last summer into a double-digit Rubio lead. The darling of conservatives angry over Republicans' help in growing government, Rubio hit Crist like a hurricane. Crist left the Republican Party in April and began campaigning for the Senate as an Independent.

Rubio's ability to drive a sitting governor from his own party shocked many. And Rubio has kept up his energy this summer: His campaign raised a Florida record $4.5 million in the quarter that ended June 30-that's a million more than Rubio raised in 2010's first quarter. Crist raised $1.8 million for the second quarter.

But Crist's gambit kept him alive. The race is now labeled a toss-up, with Rubio and Crist swapping 2- to 3-percentage-point leads in recent polls. The race's leading Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, facing a late and largely self-funded primary challenge from billionaire Jeff Greene, remains more than 20 points behind Rubio and Crist.

While Crist's departure from the GOP ended the intra-party fight, the race's stakes are much higher than the future of one party. "The issue is whether we are going to elect people who are willing to say or do anything to get elected," Rubio told me. "Here you have someone who is so obsessed with winning an election that he will change parties just to get elected. Are we going to reward that kind of behavior?"

Rubio admits that running against the incumbent governor of your own party was not the next logical step up the political ladder. But Rubio decided to take on Crist after three months of soul searching in early 2009, fueled by Crist's warm embrace of President Obama's economic stimulus package.

Rubio turned to faith and family when trying to determine whether he wanted to run for the right reasons. "For those who have the Christian faith and are in politics, there is a constant struggle between a desire to do what is right and how that sometimes may not coincide with what is popular," said Rubio, a Roman Catholic whose family has spent the last six years attending a Miami-area nondenominational church, Christ Fellowship. "I hope that, more often than not, I make the right choice."

Rubio tells voters that he is 100 percent pro-life, adding that he is fine with losing half the voters in Florida over that issue.

Rubio and his wife have four children. During a recent campaign swing through the Florida panhandle, Rubio's 5-year-old son, Anthony, tagged along. Before shaking the hands of those in the room-the first activity of a typical politician-Rubio often led Anthony, toting headphones and a portable DVD player, to a nearby table. At one point, Rubio's speech was interrupted by a tug on his pant leg. Anthony had to go to the bathroom.


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