Portrait of a Tepid Tea Partier

Article excerpt

Byline: Arian Campo-Flores

U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio hopes to harness the movement without getting burned.

Marco Rubio has become a darling of the tea-party set. With their help he has transformed his insurgent campaign, which once seemed like a fool's errand, into a serious conservative challenge to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a column arguing that the tea-party movement is "amateurish" but potentially a "major force," recently hailed Rubio as a leading contender "to become its de facto leader." The New York Times Magazine featured Rubio on its cover with a question: THE FIRST SENATOR FROM THE TEA PARTY? And tea-party favorites like Sen. Jim DeMint and former House majority leader Dick Armey have endorsed Rubio's populist candidacy. Following Republican Scott Brown's surge to victory in the Massachusetts special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, it's not unreasonable to think that Rubio, 38, could bump aside a major GOP-establishment candidate and ride the populist wave to victory in Florida.

So why does Rubio himself seem wary of the tea-party label? When CNBC's Larry Kudlow referred to him as a "tea-party senator" in a recent interview, Rubio responded, "Let me back you up on that for just a second. When you talk about the tea party, remember, I'm a Republican." His campaign wants to be clear that Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, is not trying to become the face of the movement. "Marco's never sought to be the candidate of one particular group of people or of one particular faction in the Republican Party," says Pat Shortridge, a senior adviser for the campaign. "He's running as who he is and what he believes in." Rubio declined to attend the first national tea-party convention last week in Nashville, where Sarah Palin was scheduled as the keynote speaker; his campaign says he had "a pretty full schedule." "Rubio may not be 100 percent of everything we want," says William Temple, a historical-reenactment actor who showed up in Nashville in full Revolutionary garb, "but he's what we've got for now, so we'll support him."

So far, Rubio has pulled off a neat political trick by capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the tea partiers while also managing to keep some distance. He has attended eight tea parties throughout Florida, hoping to harness the mixture of antigovernment anger and red-blooded patriotism that prevails at such gatherings. A Miami-born son of Cuban exiles, he cites the story of his family as a cautionary tale of government takeover. "My parents lost their country to a government!" he exclaimed at a rally in West Palm Beach last year. "I will not lose mine to a government!" Yet when asked directly about his ties to the tea party, Rubio strives to cast the anti-establishment movement as very mainstream. "The tea party is widely misunderstood by the media," he insists, choosing his words as carefully as any standard politician would. It's "an important part of a bigger movement in America united behind the idea that you don't have to get rid of everything that's right about America to fix what is wrong about our country." (Is there anyone who would not unite behind that idea?)

Lately, Rubio appears to have all the momentum in the race. A recent Rasmussen poll showed him beating Crist 49 percent to 37 percent. In the fourth quarter of last year he raised $1.75 million, nearly matching Crist's $2 million. Brown's recent victory in Massachusetts only seemed to reinforce the message that the electorate is hungry for outsiders, and Rubio has successfully attacked Crist as the personification of mushy moderation because of his support for President Obama's stimulus package, among other sins. …