NAVARRE — U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is an unlikely contender in northwest Florida, a strip of the Bible Belt closer to Alabama than his hometown of Miami.
For the Cuban-American, Panhandle voters can be tough: They've come across few Hispanic candidates and often view South Florida as a cesspool of incivility and corruption.
But in a Republican primary that's shifted from a cakewalk for Gov. Charlie Crist to a referendum on whether he has sold his Republican soul, many voters in northwest Florida say they don't care if Rubio speaks Spanish — as long as he speaks "true conservative."
"Listening to you makes me feel like there's hope," said retired teacher Anne McLemore after hearing Rubio at a Republican women's club in Miramar Beach. She added later, "He was saying all the things I need to hear."
Rubio repeatedly hit the highlights of the conservative agenda in a two-day Panhandle tour last week that took him from a Pensacola diner that boasts "no grits, no glory" to a wood-paneled Best Western in DeFuniak Springs. Offshore oil drilling? Check. No amnesty for illegal immigrants? Check. Limited government, gun rights and term limits? Check, check, check.
He's been making road trips like this for months, introducing himself to Republican activists in every corner of a state where he is largely unknown outside of South Florida. The shoe leather campaign along with national publicity and a solid fundraising run have made him a credible candidate against the sitting governor. Still, a Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll shows Crist leading 50 percent to 28 percent, with an even wider lead in northern Florida.
"While I'm encouraged, the fact is, if the election were held today, I'd still lose," Rubio said.
Out on the campaign trail, though, the 38-year-old Rubio looks a political giant slayer. Voters slip $50 and $100 checks into his hand and chase him down to get autographs on the National Review magazine cover photo that boosted his national profile.
"We are tired of apologizing for our principles," Rubio says. "We are tired of watering down our stands to win elections."
But elections in the nation's fourth-largest state are typically won with multimillion dollar ad blitzes, not rousing stump speeches. Crist had $6.2 million on hand at the end of September — though some of the money must be reserved for the 2010 general election — compared with Rubio's stash of less than $1 million.
"Marco has been running in a vacuum," said Republican consultant Jamie Miller, who ran Katherine Harris' 2006 Senate bid. "It's very encouraging to go out and have 100 people clap for you, and it's an important group of voters, but at the end of the day it's only 100 voters."
Walton County Republican Party Chairman Tim Norris, a Crist ally who passed up hearing Rubio speak last week, said, "The governor will carry the Panhandle overwhelmingly."
Even if Rubio musters an upset, his hard-line conservative stances threaten his mainstream appeal in a general election bid for Democratic and independent votes. The former leader of the Florida House says Roe vs. Wade should be overturned, supports abolishing income taxes in favor of a national sales tax, and declines to venture an opinion on President Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship.
In his third trip to the Panhandle since July, Rubio campaigned like the election was weeks away. It was still dark out when he arrived at the Coffee Cup diner in Pensacola. Between seven stops that day, Rubio updated supporters via Twitter and juggled interviews on his iPhone.
"It's the part of the state that wins elections for Republicans," Rubio told a Republican women's club in Navarre.
In the Panhandle, even the Democrats lean Republican. This is the Central time zone. Billboards say, "America, love it or leave it" and "Discover the power of prayer." The smattering of military bases feed one of the biggest populations of service personnel and veterans in the country. FM radio offers plenty of country and Christian music.
"People always ask me how I'm doing in North Florida, it's so different from South Florida," Rubio said at a Navarre golf club.
"We live in different worlds … we listen to different music, maybe, and eat different foods, though the food tonight was excellent. The only things we have in common are the most important things."
It was Mel Martinez, the only Cuban-American elected statewide in Florida, who opened the door for Rubio by retiring from the U.S. Senate in September.
"Minorities are not uncomfortable around us," said Santa Rosa Republican Party Chairman Morgan Lamb, as Rubio mingled with voters after his speech. "He's got to run like a white guy — on his record."
Rubio's standard stump speech packages his campaign as the next chapter of a classic American success story. "I am the son of Cuban exiles," he began in Navarre, telling the story of his parents meeting in Havana and moving to the United States in 1959 in search of a better life. His father was a bartender, while his mother worked as a hotel cashier and store clerk.
"Thank God Cuba was 90 miles from the U.S. and not from Spain," Rubio said. "There has never been anything like the United States of America."
"Amen," murmured the crowd. His campaign pitch invariably offers heavy doses of patriotism and up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy. To hear Rubio tell it, a vote for him is a vote for the American Dream.
"He just makes us feel good," said Carolyn Pfeiffer, the 73-year-old treasurer of the women's club in Navarre.
Rubio also plays to conservative distrust of government and faith in capitalism. He says climate change legislation will make the United States the "cleanest third world country on the planet." Private markets will cure the energy crisis and offer new health insurance alternatives. Entrepreneurship will prosper if government would only get out of the way.
He casts the election in broad strokes, appealing to American ideals of prosperity and freedom.
"Every single generation of Americans inherited a more prosperous country than the people that came before them," Rubio said. "Now it is our turn to decide whether we will in fact do the same."
Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@MiamiHerald.com.