Florida Senate hopeful Marco Rubio is sitting in a hotel lobby in midtown Manhattan, arguing that his Republican Party has a decision to make.
"It's what the party's going to be about," says Rubio, the 38-year-old former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. "It's not a choice between two evil paths. It's a choice between one I believe is right and one I believe is wrong."
A choice, in other words, between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist.
Rubio and Crist are competing against each other in a Republican primary to fill the seat previously held by Republican Mel Martinez, who resigned in August. (The current senator, George LeMieux - who was appointed by Crist - has said he's not going to run.)
When he announced in May that he was running for the seat, Crist was expected to have a relatively easy time winning the primary, and then the general election: A popular Republican governor with the backing of the GOP establishment, he'd staked out moderate positions on climate change and government spending that made him palatable to Florida's independents and Democrats.
Six months on, however, Crist looks vulnerable. His poll numbers are down, though he still has a sizable, if shrinking, lead over Rubio. What he does not have is the enthusiasm of the state's Republican activists, who have repeatedly indicated their preference for Rubio in straw polls.
Only registered Republicans can vote in Florida's GOP primary, which will take place in August. That's a problem for Crist, who has long been viewed with suspicion by the more conservative elements of the party - the folks who tend to show up in low-turnout, non-presidential year elections.
If Rubio can convince enough of those voters that he deserves their vote - and raise enough money to put a dent in Crist's six-to-one fundraising advantage - Rubio could effectively steal the nomination out from under Crist, and in the process help put the GOP on a path that some fear will lead to its marginalization.
The clean-cut and charismatic Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is in many ways the perfect candidate for the fiscal conservatives who have taken over the Republican spotlight - and who seem intent on taking over the Republican Party. President Obama's spending policies, he argues, "will rob my children and their generation of their prosperity, and some of their freedoms."
Rubio sees America as a nation of people who "want government to get out of the way" - and casts himself as an uncompromising advocate for those who believe prosperity results not from government largess but rather free enterprise. He's not the only one: Anti-taxation heavyweight Grover Norquist called Rubio "the most pro-taxpayer legislative leader in the country," and he has the backing of the powerful limited-government group The Club For Growth.
"I think it's part of a broader problem in American politics, and that is people who will say or do anything in order to win an election…including lie about their record," Rubio said.
Rubio says he largely supports the tea party protesters, many of whom have cast health care reform as a socialist takeover. (The feeling is mutual: FreedomWorks, the conservative lobbying group that has helped organize the protests, is planning to mobilize thousands of volunteers on Rubio's behalf.) Asked if he would welcome the support of former GOP vice presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Rubio offers an unqualified yes, adding that "I can't think of anything her and I disagree with off the top of my head."
Palin hasn't offered an endorsement in the Florida Senate race, but she did weigh in on another race with some striking similarities - last week's House contest in upstate New York. In that race, a moderate Republican was forced out of the contest amid a challenge from conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman; Hoffman went on to lose the election to Democrat Bill Owens, even though the rural district had been reliably Republican for years.
Shortly before the vote, Rubio wrote this in a blog post: "For conservatives who still don't believe we can be true to our principles and win elections, I hope NY-23 serves as a wake-up call." Wouldn't Hoffman's loss, then, be a wake-up call of a different kind - evidence of the potential fallout when conservative Republicans like Rubio take on moderates from their own party?
Not at all, Rubio said. He pinned the loss on the local Republican Party, which he said shouldn't have selected moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava in the first place.
"The blame lays on those who decided to anoint someone who was so outside the mainstream of Republican thought," he argued.
Some prominent Republicans, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, saw the upstate House New York race as a cautionary tale about what happens when Republicans become too dogmatic, rejecting candidates who don't conform to a relatively narrow set of beliefs. Gingrich suggested that conservatives like Rubio and Palin are engaged in a "purge" of moderates that could ultimately result in Democrat Nancy Pelosi being "speaker-for-life."
Rubio rejects the notion that there is a purge going on of moderate Republicans, arguing that Gingrich has it exactly backward, at least when it comes to his campaign.
"People always couch it as 'is there a purge of moderates,'" he said. "I think the real question is, 'is there room for the conservatives in the party?' Let's not forget that the establishment has endorsed the moderate in this race, Charlie Crist. So if anything, the people fighting to be a part of the Republican Party are the conservatives in this race, not the moderates."
Crist's campaign, for its part, is trying to change the narrative by going after Rubio's self-image as a "true conservative." That mantle, suggests Crist communications director Andrea Saul, actually belongs to the governor.
Saul pointed to Rubio's "excessive spending following his election as speaker, support for tax increases, limitations on the 2nd amendment, lack of leadership on immigration reform, [and] political favors for key supporters" as evidence of his liberalism.
"On the contrary, Governor Crist has demonstrated a solid commitment to social and fiscal conservatism and is strongly pro-life and pro-family," she said. Saul went on to note that Crist was named Gun Rights Defender of the month in July by the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
But while Crist's camp may be stressing his conservative bona fides to fend off Rubio's challenge from the right, one of the governor's strongest arguments (and one he can't explicitly make) may be that he is better positioned to defeat likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek in a general election. Meek, a Democratic congressman from the Miami area, has been moving toward the center in advance of the general election - where he would be well-positioned to make a play for independents and moderate Republicans who could be turned off by Rubio if he is the Republican nominee.
The race, then, could hinge on whether GOP primary voters opt for Crist, the potentially safer if perhaps less emotionally-satisfying option, or the seemingly more dogmatic Rubio. Republicans have already begun taking sides: Crist has the backing of Sens. John McCain and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, while Rubio has been endorsed by conservative Sens. Jim DeMint and James Inhofe, as well as former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
The outcome of the race could demonstrate what the GOP will become as it tries to find its footing following two years in the political wilderness.
"I believe that I represent those who believe the Republican Party should be an alternative to the Democratic Party," Rubio said. "I believe that I give voice to those that believe that limited government is the source of our great prosperity as a people. And that's why I believe I'm going to win."
By Brian Montopoli
By Brian Montopoli