HUDSON — When the Pasco GOP sold out its annual Reagan Day dinner four years ago, then-party chairman Bill Bunting knew exactly why.
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "It's Charlie Crist."
Crist, the dinner's featured speaker that year, got a standing ovation and proclaimed Pasco County his back yard. The party faithful lined up beside him on stage, sang his praises and left in vehicles plastered with Crist bumper stickers.
But on Saturday, Bunting and about 70 others reserved the rock-star treatment for Marco Rubio, the man they want to beat Crist in the race for U.S. Senate.
They snapped photographs and cheered on Rubio, clad in blue jeans and a campaign polo shirt, as he spoke at a Hudson fundraiser about everything from the federal deficit to Crist's record to the grass roots movement that is making his run possible.
"You can't run in normal times against the governor in your state," he said. "You can only do it in times like this."
Saturday's fundraiser, held just before the annual National Rifle Association dinner, comes five months after Pasco's Republican Executive Committee held a straw poll that went almost unanimously for Rubio over Crist.
Republican leaders in other counties have held informal polls with similar results, an indication that Crist could have his work cut out for him.
Pasco Republicans attending Rubio's fundraiser said Crist failed to get homeowners insurance under control, appointed a liberal judge to the state Supreme Court and endorsed a federal stimulus package that they believe is a failure.
In short? They said the country is headed in the wrong direction — and they consider the governor part of the problem.
"Crist isn't what he said he was, okay?" said Gary Worthley, a sales agent from Land O'Lakes. "There are many of us, if Rubio does not win (the primary), we will not vote in the election."
"Hugging Obama didn't help," said Port Richey lawyer Jim Mathieu, referring to Crist's appearance with the president while promoting the federal stimulus package.
Mathieu said Rubio was correct to point out that his timing was also good.
"He's in the right time, the right place," he said. "Poor Crist. He was just floating, right?"
Rubio has spoken at a number of events in Pasco, which he has said he expects to win.
"It's a conservative county, a county that's upset with where Washington is taking this country," he said.
Mike Wells, Pasco's property appraiser, praised Rubio as an articulate politician who so far has tapped into a general dissatisfaction with Crist — and offered himself up as a conservative alternative.
"He's a polished politician, no question about it," said Wells. But Rubio has also convinced him he's "the real deal."
"He'll do what he saying on the stump," he said. "I think people are looking for people who'll do what they say they're going to do."
Wells also said he thinks this initial support of Rubio will last — and grow — over the next 10 months.
"I think it's clear Rubio is going to win Pasco County," Wells said.
Not so, said Sen. Mike Fasano, a popular Republican in the county and a strong Crist supporter who says Rubio has overstated his conservative credentials.
Fasano said in an interview last week that the straw poll was not indicative of a larger movement among Republicans and called the executive committee "a small part of the Republican Party."
Fasano did not hesitate when asked if Crist would win Pasco County.
"Oh, my goodness, yes," he said.
Asked about Fasano's support of Crist, Rubio said, "Maybe Mike Fasano supports the stimulus package."
After the fundraiser, most of those in attendance headed over to the Friends of NRA dinner and auction, where Rubio was to lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
Bunting said he had invited Crist to the NRA dinner, too. He never got a reply.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.