THE VILLAGES — Six months ago, Marco Rubio had to put up with pundits speculating about when he would drop his hopeless campaign for U.S. Senate and run instead for attorney general.
On Tuesday, as Rubio launched a high profile bus tour through Central Florida, he fended off questions about running for president in 2012.
"I have my hands full with this election. I'm not going to be a vice presidential or presidential contender," he said of the conservative commentators lately touting him as a White House contender. "Just the fact that I'm addressing it embarrasses me."
It has been an extraordinary rise for the 38-year-old former state House speaker, who is leading Gov. Charlie Crist by double digits in every recent poll and on Tuesday capped the opening of his "Take a Stand'' bus tour with a Fox News interview by Sean Hannity before a cheering crowd of thousands at the Villages retirement community near Leesburg.
"This is a referendum on the very identity of our country," Rubio said.
Rubio's planned four-day tour was supposed to take him through Pasco County, Sarasota and Lakeland on Thursday and Friday, but he cut it back to two days after his 83-year-old father was diagnosed with a recurrence of lung cancer.
"I've got to get back and figure out what's next,'' Rubio said as his campaign motor coach passed through Winter Garden. "Health care is a maze and it has to be navigated."
The Rubio-Crist race has emerged as one of the hottest contests in the country and a referendum on whether the GOP should embrace Crist's sunny, pragmatic style of Republicanism, or Rubio's never compromise core principles tack.
"I think he's a very strong Republican,'' said Cesar Figueredo, among more than 100 people who turned out to see Rubio at a community center in Orlando.
"We need conservatives like him in government. We don't want people to take away what we worked so hard for."
"His attitude to the Democrats is too easy. I consider Democrats, communists and Muslims all the same.''
Behind in the polls and watching Rubio raise more and more money, Crist has launched TV ads attacking Rubio's integrity and linking him to indicted former state House Speaker Ray Sansom.
"He's desperate,'' said U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Rubio supporter who joined him at the Villages on Tuesday night. "Charlie's panicking because he knows he's behind and sees his glow with Floridians fade away. You know the saying: You've got to stand for something. Charlie doesn't stand for anything."
Rubio denounced Crist's ads and suggested Crist was violating Ronald Reagan's famous 11th Commandment — never attack a fellow Republican.
"I would never speak that way about another Republican. I think it is outrageous that he's doing that," Rubio said. "I guess he has a right to do with his time and his money as he chooses. We're 12 months into this campaign and Charlie Crist has failed to make a single meaningful pronouncement on public policy."
Rubio rarely mentions Crist by name in campaign speeches, but makes veiled references.
"For too long, we've elected people to public office where you can't even tell where they stand on the issues,'' he said, casting himself as the candidate of substance willing to tackle the toughest issues.
In a recent televised debate with Crist, Rubio said he could support raising the Social Security retirement age for Americans under 55 — a dicey position in Florida — and he repeated it again Wednesday.
"If my generation doesn't make changes in Social Security and Medicare, it will not exist for us," he said. "In fact it will bankrupt us."
He had avoided taking a firm position on the controversial teacher tenure bill Crist is expected to veto, but on Wednesday he declared his support.
"I support the bill. I think it should be signed,'' Rubio said. "It helps pay teachers more money, particularly really good teachers."
Sitting in a lawn chair in the street near Sean Hannity's TV show taping at the Villages, Swede Sjolund, 64, liked what he saw.
"I think he'll maintain good conservative values, unlike Charlie Crist, who just likes to spend money. I think we need a fresh face in Congress."
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]