Addressing the Christian Family Coalition breakfast this weekend in Miami, Florida Governor Charlie Crist managed to use the word "trust" 10 times in less than three minutes. "I will not break YOUR trust," he said. "When you spend somebody else's money, you have a duty to do what's right, even when nobody is watching. That's a true test of character."
As Crist spoke, Marco Rubio sat stone-faced a few feet away. Rubio understood what everyone in the audience knew as well—every time Crist used the word "trust," it was a jab at Rubio.
Rubio and his staff admitted these were the strongest comments he had ever made on the abortion issue. “Well, in front of you guys, certainly,” he said to reporters after the event.
As Crist's rival in the Republican primary for the United States Senate seat left open by the early retirement of Mel Martinez, Rubio had been hit a few days earlier with reports in The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times that he had racked up thousands of dollars in personal expenses on an American Express card given to him by the state Republican Party.
Among the more embarrassing revelations was a $133 charge for a haircut, as well as several thousand dollars to get his car repaired and to rent a car while his was being fixed. Rubio has reimbursed the party for all of the personal charges, and his campaign blamed Crist allies for leaking the credit-card bills.
"I understand he is a desperate candidate," Rubio said after the event. "It's not fun to be behind in the polls. I used to be behind in the polls. But here is the bottom line: I am going to prove that in this election that you can get elected to the United States Senate by running a campaign on the issues, not by convincing the people to vote against someone else."
The scandal surrounding the credit card has been the first sign of trouble for Rubio's insurgent campaign, which has brought him from almost 50 points down in the polls a year ago to now being up by 15.
A protégé of Jeb Bush, Rubio did it by tapping into Tea Party discontent and conservative anger. In September, The National Review gave Rubio's campaign the street cred it desperately needed with a cover story and headline, "Yes, He Can." In November, George Will declared unabashedly on This Week with George Stephanopoulos that Rubio "will win, absolutely, he will win." And in January, The New York Times Magazine made Rubio its cover boy with a dramatic black-and-white photograph alongside the question: "The First Senator From The Tea Party?"
Nine days later, Scott Brown seized that mantle when he won the special election in Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy. But the Times' larger point remained. Florida is ground zero in the civil war between the moderate and the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and the 38-year-old Rubio has emerged as the boyishly handsome standard-bearer for the anti-Washington, anti-government wing of his party.
Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck have all shown Rubio love on their radio programs. But none of it compared to the acclaim Rubio received when he addressed the CPAC conference in Washington last month.
Noting that D.C. had earlier been shut down by a massive snow storm, Rubio opened his address saying: "I don't know if you know this, the Congress couldn't meet to vote on bills. The regulatory agencies couldn't meet to set new regulations either. And the president couldn't find anywhere to set up a teleprompter to announce new taxes. Now that I come to think of it, the blizzard may be the best thing to happen to the American economy in 12 months."
The applause was riotous. Rubio was hailed as one of the highlights of the conference with some conservative pundits already looking past this year's Senate race to begin floating Rubio's name as a vice-presidential contender in 2012. Rubio must have come out of CPAC feeling like he had just won the Super Bowl, because he did exactly what Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees did this year—he headed for Disney World with his family.
But no sooner had he returned from the happiest place on earth than he began getting hammered about the credit-card issue. For Rubio, whose message throughout this campaign has been centered on fiscal responsibility and Washington's reckless spending, the stories have the potential to do serious harm if his supporters begin to think he is no different than every other politician they distrust.
Glenn Beck warned about these sort of missteps when he interviewed Rubio back on January 14. In introducing Rubio, Beck described how he was talking to his producer about the Cuban-American upstart. "We were talking about the other day and I said to Stu, I said, `Do you know what? I would like to reach out to Marco Rubio, I would like to know a little something about him.' Because I'll tell you, there are going to be a lot of politicians that are going to try to co-opt the Tea Party movement. Those guys are playing a very dangerous game if they're not the real deal, because you burn people who are looking to you, you burn them, you lie to them? Oh, it's just not going to end well."
Once the interview got under way, Beck and Rubio hit it off; by the end, Beck was saying, "Glad I talked to you." Nevertheless, a few more revelations like the credit-card fiasco and it could be a long six months until the election for Rubio.
Crist, who has been on the defensive for months, and has even had to deny rumors he would leave the GOP to run as an independent, relished seeing Rubio take his first real hit of the campaign. His message to Rubio after the story broke: "Welcome to the NFL."
Rubio said he understood he was going to face scrutiny like never before in his life. "I'm running for the U.S. Senate in the most important country in the world," he said in an interview following the Christian Family Coalition breakfast. "There is always going to be scrutiny, and I think rightfully so. If mistakes have been made and we find them in the process of the scrutiny, we're going to correct them."
The reason Rubio is vulnerable to these types of accusations is that despite all of the great publicity he has received, he is not especially well known. He has never run statewide before. More than anything, his supporters see him as a symbolic figure, someone who would have voted no on the $787 billion stimulus bill in contrast to Crist, who not only endorsed it but had the temerity—the audacity—to hug President Obama at a rally in support of it.
When Rubio first started out on the campaign trail—visiting Tea Party events and small conservative Republican clubs around the state—all that people knew about him was that he wasn't Charlie Crist. And that was good enough for them.
But even in those early days, Rubio faced some doubts based on his record. As speaker of the Florida House, he had bottled up six bills that would have cracked down on illegal immigration. One bill would have required state officials to determine the immigration status of anyone applying for government benefits. Another would have mandated that local police run background checks on everyone they arrest to see if they are in the country illegally or if they have overstayed their visas. That bill would also have required the police to detain them until federal agents could come and take them into custody.
At the time, Rubio said he blocked the bills because he didn't think immigration was a state issue. "There is nothing the state of Florida can do unilaterally to solve global warming," he told reporters. "And there is nothing we can do unilaterally to solve immigration."
When Rubio launched his Senate campaign, a right-wing radio host in South Florida chastised him on blocking the immigration bills and warned, "That will be your cross to bear." But she said she was willing to give Rubio a tentative pass because she so despised Charlie Crist.
Since then, Rubio has moved further to the right on immigration, even going so far as to say that illegal immigrants should not be counted this year in the United States Census, even though that would cost Florida millions of dollars in federal funds.
Indeed, Rubio is moving further to the right on other issues. Whether that's because the attention he's received from conservatives has emboldened him to speak in terms he's never used before—or because he's still working to reassure his base—is unclear.
But watching him on the campaign trail over the past year, it is obvious Rubio has grown more comfortable with the labels that are now being placed on him. Back in May, when he talked about the race, he showed little interest in being branded the conservative candidate. " I don't think it is as simple as some people analyze it," he told me. "They think this is a conservative versus a moderate. I'm not running as a conservative. I'm running on what I believe in. If people want to call that conservative, that's fine."
Today, the toast of CPAC and the Tea Party movement declares himself the only true conservative in the race. Even his speech at the Christian Family Coalition breakfast seemed unusual for Rubio. While Crist spoke out about "trust," Rubio spent his entire address on the sanctity of life and the "horrifying" results of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
"If you do not believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, you are not pro-life," Rubio declared. (Crist maintains that he considers himself pro-life but believes Roe v. Wade is settled law and should not be overturned.)
"They say they don't want to change the law, they want to change people's hearts," Rubio continued. " And I understand that. But here's the problem, senators can't change hearts, only God can change hearts. Senators can help make the law. Senators can make sure judges being confirmed for the United States Supreme Court understand that Roe v. Wade is bad law constitutionally, and morally and it should be overturned."
Rubio and his staff admitted these were the strongest comments he had ever made on the abortion issue. "Well, in front of you guys, certainly," he said to reporters after the event. "But this is my position on Roe v. Wade and always has been." (In the Florida Legislature, he supported a bill that would require a woman to be shown an ultrasound picture of her fetus before being given an abortion. The bill passed the House but failed in the Florida Senate.)
With polls showing a majority of voters oppose overturning Roe, how does he plan to win a general election if he is the Republican nominee?
"Politics are not just about building coalitions," he said. "At some point people deserve to know what their candidates stand for. And I understand that it would be a lot easier and maybe even more politically productive to be on both sides of an issue, Charlie Crist has been on both sides of this issue, on the other hand I think people need to know where I stand on issues as important as life."
But in order to win a general election, Rubio would almost certainly have to keep his campaign focused on the economy, spending, and the taxpayer issues that have brought him to national prominence. Assuming he keeps his own spending in line.
Jim DeFede, a longtime South Florida investigative reporter, works for CBS4 News in Miami.