Cover Story

The challenger's challenge

"The challenger's challenge" Continued...

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

The Florida Panhandle may be a Republican stronghold in what remains a very purple state, but people here seem both drawn to Rubio and eager for him to take on the title that would come with victory. "Senator, can I go ahead and say it?" asked one participant at a Panama City Beach forum. He hopes it is not too early to address Rubio as part of what is often called the world's most exclusive club.

"It's going to be 'Marco' no matter what," Rubio shot back, seemingly not tempted by the title.

Rubio portrays himself as the everyman antidote to the current ruling class. It seems to be working. His appeal extends to the internet where he has more than 100,000 Facebook friends compared to Crist's 27,000.

"Marco is not too proud to shop at Wal-Mart," said Dave Murzin, a Republican state representative from Pensacola who served alongside Rubio. That would be a stark contrast in a Senate where senators have an average net worth of $14 million.

Because of this connection, voters easily cry out to Rubio about their fears.

At a Navarre, Fla., pizza place, Susan Berel, a 44-year-old accountant, shook both her arms at Rubio:

"We are dying here, and not just here . . . the whole country," she pleaded. "Are you willing to get yourself up there and say, 'This is unacceptable'?" Elsewhere a 60-year-old fisherman hoped Rubio "will think about us" in Washington, while a grandfather hoisted his granddaughter above his shoulders and proclaimed that she is what November's elections are about.

"You want to keep that sentiment close to you because it will serve as a reminder," Rubio told me. "If I get to Washington, D.C., I will have to fight every day the temptation to become a part of that culture."

At the end of Rubio's BBQ event, I ran outside to catch Wilds, the man who asked Rubio the tough questions. Wilds, who served 18 years in the Army and a dozen years as a federal marshal, admitted that he would probably vote for Rubio. But he still had doubts: "He can't go up there and change things all by himself."

Changing Washington's culture surely is not a one-person job. And it remains to be seen whether Rubio's outsider message will appeal beyond the state's conservative voters.

Al Castro, a 75-year-old Puerto-Rican American, ordered his food to go at a Pensacola seafood house when he heard Rubio would be speaking in the next room. After Rubio's appearance, Castro seemed satisfied. "I think he will be a thorn in Obama's saddle," he said.

That may have to be good enough for now.
To hear Edward Lee Pitts discuss this topic on the Knowing the Truth radio program, click here.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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