The Florida economy may be in the dumps, but Charlie Crist's campaign fundraising machine is humming along.
Crist announced Thursday that in just 50 days he raised an eye-popping $4.3 million for his U.S. Senate campaign. That not only dwarfs the previous Florida Senate fundraising record set by Republican Mel Martinez — $1.7 million in his first fundraising period in 2004 — but it highlights the huge hurdles for Republican Senate rival Marco Rubio, who raised just $340,000 in the same period.
"This is a race about people and about doing what's right for the people of Florida. I'm very pleased by the fundraising effort, and I'm grateful for it," said Crist, who held fundraising receptions in and out of Florida virtually every day of June.
Crist averaged about $86,000 in campaign donations per day.
"It's a lot of hard work. And a lot of nice people. Hard work and kind people, obviously," the governor told reporters. "I'm blessed. Thank God."
Until the detailed reports are released next week, it's not clear how much of Crist's total can be spent in the GOP primary because the maximum campaign donation allowed is $2,400 per election. The Crist campaign had been pressing people to donate $4,800 — or $9,600 per couple — with half to be used in the general election.
But even if half of Crist's money must be held until after the primary, he's still on his way to drowning former state House Speaker Rubio.
"Rubio's going out there doing so poorly that he might want to reconsider his decision to run," said veteran Republican fundraiser Al Austin, who hosted a Crist reception last month and noted the difficulty raising money in a poor economy. "I'm not very optimistic about where the economy's going. Fundraising is going to get tougher with each passing month, so getting ahead at the early stage of the game is a huge advantage. It's just hard to generate support when people think you haven't got a chance."
The Rubio campaign has been generating plenty of grass roots enthusiasm from conservative activists disenchanted with Crist's moderate persona and particularly Crist's support of President Barack Obama's stimulus package. Rubio has won endorsements from the likes of former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, but the next three-month fundraising period is likely to be crucial for the Miami Republican to prove his viability in a state as large and expensive to campaign in as Florida.
The Rubio campaign shrugged off Crist's money-raising Thursday.
"Charlie Crist will need to spend every last cent trying to convince voters that his support for wasteful stimulus spending, cap-and-trade schemes, tax increases and liberal judges are acceptable Republican practices," said Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos.
Rubio has challenged Crist to a series of 10 debates, but the governor declined, saying through a spokesman on June 22 he was too busy governing Florida.
That day Crist was in Washington raising campaign money.
Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.