When U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio delivers the keynote speech Thursday to the most prestigious annual gathering of conservatives in the country, there will be no question: He has arrived.
In less than one year, the Republican challenger to Gov. Charlie Crist has leaped from sleeper candidate to near-front runner in the polls. Rubio's marquee appearance in front of thousands of politicians, activists and opinionmakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington marks yet another milestone in one of the most astonishing turnarounds in Florida politics.
At the same time, Rubio's new status presents new challenges. How will he continue to pitch himself as a political outsider — the quality that made him a star on the anti-establishment tea party circuit — even as he picks up congressional endorsements and raises money with the Washington elite? Will his political liabilities weigh more heavily under the intense scrutiny bestowed on leading candidates?
"We've watched Rubio over the last several months become more of a national candidate, and that certainly opens him up to a lot more scrutiny from the press, from voters," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
"He's still fairly undefined."
At a time when being an incumbent can be a career killer, the former House speaker frequently adopts the posture of a fight-the-power revolutionary, referring to "our movement'' and decrying the "establishment."
But his schedule this week doesn't look like a path blazed by an insurgent. Wednesday night, he was slated to attend a fundraiser at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Washington co-hosted by the former ambassador to Barbados. After his speech to CPAC — Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney also are on the program — he's got back-to-back receptions.
One is hosted by lobbying powerhouse Peter Madigan, a top fundraiser for Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The other is hosted by a few members of Congress, former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Liz, and former White House adviser Mary Matalin.
"People raise their eyebrows when they see him doing these fundraisers," said Matt Nye, an activist in the Republican Party and tea party movement in Brevard County. "I don't think him accepting endorsements and money necessarily means he's gone to the dark side ... as long as he sticks to his guns."
In recent days, Rubio has landed potentially money-raising endorsements from anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes and the No. 3 Republican in the House, Mike Pence of Indiana.
"What appealed to us is that he seemed like an outsider, but with his recent endorsements from mainstream D.C., it does kind of hinder that image from the activist viewpoint," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party. "If he keeps going after bigger contributors and Washington-as-usual, he's going to lose his base very quickly."
Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos dismissed the idea that he had become the establishment candidate, pointing to his victories in 23 straw polls held by Republican grass-roots clubs across Florida. Former President George W. Bush boosted Rubio's outsider image when he joked to his brother, former Gov. Jeb Bush, at a Naples event on Tuesday: "Who the hell is Marco Rubio?"
"He's still facing the sitting governor with a massive war chest, and it's hard to see how he's anything but the underdog," Burgos said.
As his support increases, so does the media spotlight. Last month, at a gathering of newspaper reporters and editors in Tallahassee, Rubio deflected questions from an aggressive press corps about federal money for high-speed rail, his one-time registration as a lobbyist and his non-advertised job at financially strapped Florida International University.
The Crist campaign continues to accuse Rubio of moving to the right on immigration and climate change policy. Rubio has blasted Crist for embracing the federal stimulus plan but acknowledged that, if he were governor, he would have taken some of the money, too.
"If you rise up so fast, so quickly, it makes you a big, fat target for attacks and scrutiny," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "He has peaked awfully early."
Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@miamiherald.