TAMPA — It's not so much that the thrill is gone with Marco Rubio, but definitely the passion has cooled.
Back when he was the daring insurgent taking on Charlie Crist, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate was exciting, edgy, a national superstar. Now, he's the de facto Republican nominee, while Gov. Crist is all over TV talking about the oil catastrophe and other primary campaigns look much more exciting than Rubio's.
"We've lost that aggressiveness and passion that we had with Marco Rubio when he was behind in the polls. We were ready to take the hill," said Tom Eckert, a Republican activist from Oldsmar at a Rubio campaign stop Monday in Tampa. "Now it's a period of regrouping."
About 60 people showed up at Datz Deli in South Tampa for a meet-and-greet with the Miami Republican who used to routinely attract 150 people or more at Tampa Bay campaign events.
"Truth be told, I'm running against two Democrats in this election. Only one of them will admit it," Rubio told the crowd, referring to Democratic front-runner Kendrick Meek and former Republican Charlie Crist, who became a nonpartisan candidate when it appeared he had no chance of beating Rubio for the Republican nomination.
Rubio is essentially running now as a general election candidate, though Monday saw little sign of him reaching beyond tea party activists and archconservatives.
Audience members asked whether he agreed that President Barack Obama was intentionally letting the gulf oil spill keep gushing to promote his environmental agenda — (no, said Rubio, but the administration is inept) — and whether he agreed the Obama administration is violating the Constitution and destroying America (Rubio cherishes the Constitution, he said, and won't second-guess Obama's patriotism).
The 39-year-old former state House speaker, who only weeks ago was the hottest new political face in America, acknowledged the attention has dimmed considerably. He won't be distracted by the natural ebb and flow of campaigns, he said.
"It seems like I'm not seeing you guys as much," Rubio joked to reporters. "We're out there, we're doing what we've always done. I think it's just that we're competing with a bunch of other races right now. Clearly, there's an interesting primary in the Republican Party for governor, there's an increasingly interesting Senate primary for the Democratic Party."
In the latest polls, Crist is leading Rubio in the three-way Senate race by an average of about 5 points.
There's been little sign of the momentum that swept Rubio to the forefront, enabling him to knock Crist out of the Republican primary. He has continued to concentrate on courting the conservative media outlets, in recent days having interviews with Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bill Bennett and the Weekly Standard.
Crist, meanwhile, has dominated much of the media coverage in Florida, first by vetoing controversial antiabortion and teacher tenure bills, and then with his high profile after the BP oil disaster.
"It was a big story when Marco Rubio was opposing Charlie Crist, but right now the big story is Charlie Crist out in the Gulf of Mexico trying to save our beaches," said Kevin Wright, a Rubio supporter and state House candidate from Wesley Chapel. "Rubio needs a new reason to energize people."
Hillsborough Republican chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush acknowledged Crist is winning all the attention as she exhorted party activists not to let up even in the sweltering slow days of June.
"We have to keep the passion up that we've had and keep up the fight," she said. "We have to keep getting the message out there," she said.
Tabitha Pellegrene, a tea party activist from Valrico, said she sees Rubio moving to the middle on some issues — opposing an Arizona-style immigration law for Florida, for instance — in response to Crist gaining strong support among independents and Democrats.
"There are people who want to help, but there's nowhere to go," she said, lamenting that Rubio's local campaign office in Clearwater is not more centrally located.
Rubio dismissed the suggestion that he's moving to the left or needs to.
"The things that I believe in are majority positions," he said. "The belief that government is spending more money than it's taking in and it's going to bankrupt us and we should stop it is a majority position."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.