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Marco Rubio sticks to his script

Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio greets supporters outside a restaurant in Land O’Lakes on Friday.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio greets supporters outside a restaurant in Land O’Lakes on Friday.

RIVERVIEW — Marco Rubio has said the same thing so often it's become a laugh line.

"The speech I just gave you is the speech I was giving a year ago," the Republican Senate candidate said to small business owners here Monday. "You can ask the media guys who are here because they get tired of hearing it."

Necks jerked around to the reporters in the back of the room. "But the point is," Rubio continued over laughter, "that's why I'm running."

Seizing early on the dissatisfaction with Washington and President Barack Obama, Rubio has gone from long shot to front-runner as that sentiment has intensified and the economy has continued to struggle.

The conditions have overwhelmed other factors that could have damaged Rubio, including controversy over his use of a Republican Party credit card for personal items or his support for offshore oil drilling. They have pushed controversial social issues like gay marriage or abortion to the margins.

Rubio, 39, continues to say the same thing over and over for a simple reason: It's a winning formula.

The stump speech, which he gave again Friday at a rally with possible 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Land O'Lakes, revolves around "American exceptionalism."

It's part paean to immigrants like his parents who fled Cuba for better lives in the United States, and part warning that the American dream that allows a person to open a business "in their spare bedroom" is fading under onerous regulation, taxes and the government intrusion into health care.

"This election is a referendum on our identity and the identity choice we're asking to be made is very simple: Do we want to continue to be special or are we prepared to become like everybody else?" Rubio asks audiences.

Beneath the gloss, however, is a message about the economy and direction of the country. Rubio focuses on the federal stimulus, unemployment and what he contends are the "job killing" policies coming out of Washington.

In Land O'Lakes, Rubio made a point of saying Obama seems like a good man and father but contends his policies are destructive. "We cannot afford the next 18 months to look anything like the last 18 months," he said to wild cheers.

"Feed that fire," a man shouted.

• • •

Public discontent over the economy has intensified in the past year and a half since Rubio announced his bid, giving heft and consistency to his message.

It's also allowed Rubio to cast himself as principled because rival Charlie Crist has had to reverse earlier positions to appeal to Democrats in his role as an independent candidate.

Rubio just keeps telling crowds about the need for fiscal restraint and less government.

It has stuck with Heather Martin, a 38-year-old independent voter from Land O'Lakes who said she has supported Gov. Crist in the past but feels Rubio has the right message. "We need someone to rein it in," she said.

"People are looking for consistency in leadership and he's been the most consistent in his message," said Republican strategist Brett Doster. "There hasn't been a need to do a bunch of adjustments."

Doster engineered Tom Gallagher's deeply conservative platform as a Republican candidate for governor in 2006. Gallagher pushed rival Crist to the right, but after Crist won the primary, he began to tack to the middle in order to appeal to independents. That's standard fare in hard-fought primaries.

Initially, Crist and Rubio engaged in the same battle over who was the true conservative, but when it became obvious the Obama-hugging Crist could not win, he dropped out of the race to run as an independent.

That set up the matchup with Democrat Kendrick Meek and completely changed the math to win. The victor needs only 34 percent of the vote, and Republicans, who are showing more enthusiasm than Democrats, account for about 36 percent of the total vote in Florida.

Rubio, as a result, has little incentive to shift. "I think his goal is to keep that base," said Jamie Miller, a GOP strategist in Florida. "He's captured the dynamic of 2010."

• • •

Rubio's early rise was built in large part by the tea party, and he is often labeled as a candidate of the movement. He softly resists, saying he is a Republican and the tea party is more an "expression" of voter unrest.

While many conservatives blast Obama's policies as socialist, Rubio will not use that word. But on the campaign trail, he invokes his parent's homeland, Cuba, and contrasts it with the American free-enterprise system, which he says "has eradicated more poverty than all the government programs combined."

Rubio has cast himself as something more meaningful than a leader of the angry masses, saying Republicans have to offer alternatives. In recent months he has rolled out dozens of "Ideas to Reclaim America." They range from substantial (reducing the corporate tax rate) to shockingly obvious ("remember and find our POWs/MIAs.")

Rubio has turned his disciplined message into a tool to ward off uncomfortable subjects. Though he has used the anti-stimulus message, he has scoffed at reporters' questions about whether he would have accepted the stimulus had he been in Crist's position, facing a massive hole in the state budget.

Irrelevant, says Rubio, who says the stimulus should have never been offered. Still, he acknowledged he would have taken the money.

When Rubio faces questions about his use of a Republican Party credit card, the big salaries he handed out to staff while he was speaker of the Florida House — moves that cut at his image as a fiscal conservative — he calls them distractions from the real issues of the day.

"The politics of personal destruction are not going to make it easier to open up places like this," Rubio said Friday at Benedetto's Ristorante Italiano in Land O'Lakes. "The politics of personal destruction will not keep America the strongest country in the world."

Marco Rubio sticks to his script 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 11:08pm]

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