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Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio rose against odds

In the darkest days of Marco Rubio's quixotic campaign for U.S. Senate, it only made sense that some of Rubio's closest friends were practically begging him to drop out.

Here was a strong, young Republican candidate about to throw his future away by taking on Charlie Crist, the state's most popular politician. The governor was outraising Rubio nearly 13 to 1, leading polls by 30 points, and more and more Rubio allies, GOP fundraisers and strategists were talking about him pulling the plug on the Senate race and running for attorney general instead.

His inner circle, torn on whether he should quit, insisted Rubio remain focused; he could pull off a phenomenal upset but only with an unconventional strategy.

"You do not want to hear this,'' senior advisers Heath Thompson, Malorie Miller and Todd Harris wrote in a July 2009 memo to their client. "The communications strategy for our campaign from now until we go on the air can be summed up in seven words: This race is not about Marco Rubio. … Like it or not, this campaign is a referendum on Charlie Crist. Period. If August of 2010 comes around and voters think Charlie Crist is a nice guy and his positions are tolerable, he's going to win."

On Election Day, 16 months later, Rubio beat Crist by 20 points and media outlets from across the globe came to the grand Biltmore Hotel to record the ascension of a 39-year-old wunderkind already being talked about as a presidential candidate for 2016 — or even 2012.

Amid all the hype, it's easy to overlook the odds, and risk, Rubio overcame to get here. It's easy to forget that once upon a time, Rubio was driving his Ford F-150 to every crowd of 15 people he could find in Florida and returning to his West Miami cul-de-sac past midnight day after 16-hour day.

• • •

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez announced in November 2008 that he would not seek a second term, and Rubio quickly made it clear he might run.

But first he had to wait for the presumably unbeatable Jeb Bush to rule it out. And when Crist surfaced as a contender, Rubio initially deferred to the seemingly invincible governor.

"Everyone on the Republican side that's talking about running would step aside and acknowledge that Charlie Crist would be the best candidate," he told the St. Petersburg Times in January 2009.

By that point, though, the former House speaker was already assembling a campaign team.

The core who stayed the course: Miller, a savvy nuts-and-bolts strategist who worked with Rubio in the state House majority office; Thompson, nearly as low profile as he is well-regarded and a consultant on President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign in Florida; Harris, a pugnacious and well-connected consultant whose clients have ranged from Jeb Bush to Arnold Schwarzenegger; Julio Rebull, a longtime Rubio friend and Miami-based political consultant; and Albert Martinez, a former Jeb Bush aide and Tallahassee-based communications strategist who harbored a visceral contempt for Crist.

"There was no maestro, no Kool-Aid and no cult of personality on this campaign, just a candidate with a core set of principles focused on big issues and big ideas," Albert Martinez said.

A Quinnipiac poll in February 2009 found Crist with 53 percent support, Rubio with 3 percent. Despite the polls and conventional wisdom about Crist's invincibility, Rubio and the team knew Crist's support among Republican primary voters was shallow.

And through his own moves, Crist repeatedly gave Rubio's campaign oxygen: sticking by controversial state party chairman Jim Greer; naming James Perry to the Florida Supreme Court to the furor of many conservatives; antagonizing party regulars by appointing political deputy George LeMieux to the U.S. Senate when Mel Martinez resigned early.

And at the very start, in February 2009, Crist pulled a whopper: that notorious hug in Fort Myers of President Barack Obama and his stimulus package.

"The reason why the hug photo was so devastating was simply because it became a symbol for all of the negative things that Republican primary voters either already knew or already suspected about Charlie Crist — that he can't be trusted to stand on principle, that he wasn't really the conservative that he played in 2006,'' Harris said.

• • •

Rubio formally announced his long-shot candidacy on May 5, 2009, and Crist announced a week later. The Rubio team had already prepared a Web video, Let the Debate Begin, featuring a murky image spinning on the screen and a somber narrator's voice:

"An election coming into focus. A choice for Florida's future. Some politicians support trillions in reckless spending, borrowed money from China and the Middle East, mountains of debt for our children, and a terrible threat to a fragile economy. Today, too many politicians embrace Washington's same old broken ways. (Cue image of Crist embracing Obama.) But this time, there is a leader who won't. Let the debate begin."

"Marco2010" flashes on the screen.

When Rubio first saw the spot, he sent his consultants an e-mail later shared with the Weekly Standard:

Man, let me tell you guys something. I just ran this on my computer and three things happened. 1. I got chills. 2. My wife and children painted themselves up in blue face like Braveheart. 3. I went to the closet and got out my costume from Gladiator and I could hear the crowd chant: "Maximus! Maximus!"

Let's go kill the emperor! I love it.

• • •

The only chance was to show primary voters that Rubio was the lone Republican who would stand against Obama.

The strategy called for getting the gifted speaker in front of as many GOP voters as possible and grabbing a ton of free publicity. The Florida press, they assumed, would be a harder sell than national conservative media outlets.

For one thing, Rubio's team viewed much of the Florida press as in the tank for Crist, the governor with sky-high approval ratings. For another, national media outlets saw Rubio as a fresh face, while Florida reporters knew him as a deal-cutting legislative leader with a penchant for grandiose rhetoric.

Conservative media such as the National Journal, Weekly Standard, Human Events and RedState.com were disgusted by Crist's moderation and emphasis on bipartisanship. The Rubio campaign cultivated that media relentlessly and they quickly embraced him as a conservative star, selling him to small donors across the country.

"In many ways it will be easier to sell the idea of Marco as a credible Senate candidate outside of Florida first, and use the credibility and money we receive from across the nation to then promote that message inside of Florida,'' said one internal campaign memo.

The campaign started with a conventional money-raising strategy. But trying to pack rich people in a ballroom to write big checks was not going to work for an underdog candidate seeking to defeat a sitting governor.

In July 2009, campaign finance reports showed Crist raised $4.3 million and Rubio a paltry $340,000. As much of the GOP establishment viewed Rubio's campaign in its death throes, the campaign hit the reset button. Veteran Jeb Bush fundraiser Ann Herberger — and her $20,000-a-month fee — was eased out, as was Brian Seitchik, the campaign manager.

Pat Shortridge, a former Dick Armey aide with deep ties to conservative groups across the country, came in to help right the ship. Spokesman Alex Burgos, an alumnus of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, followed later.

• • •

At the same time, talk of Rubio dropping out grew louder and discussions broke out among former GOP chairman Al Cardenas, then-Republican gubernatorial front-runner Bill McCollum, Crist, Rubio and assorted party fundraisers. In separate July 2009 conversations, they worked on a deal for Rubio to drop out and run for attorney general.

In Rubio's inner circle, no one argued harder against quitting than Shortridge, insisting Rubio could win by campaigning as the leader of an insurgent movement out to save the country. Besides, the country and the Republican Party needed him to beat a go-along-to-get-along Republican like Crist or at least go down trying.

"Crist's entire hope for victory is based on exactly the scenario that is playing out, the quick knockout. I guarantee that his strategy from Day One has been, post a huge (fundraising) number, then use it to try and push you out of the race. He knows full well that the longer you're in the race, the more people become familiar with both of you, he will fall far and fast. I've believed from the first that you would have to ride out this storm, but then would be poised for success as your allies from around the country rallied to your side and Floridians embraced your ideas and energy," Shortridge wrote in one memo.

"If we can't get this thing figured out and on a clear path to victory by the end of October, then by all means pivot into another race. But then, you will have pivoted having fought the good fight to the best of your ability."

Depending on who's recounting the discussions, the deal for Rubio to drop out fell apart because a) Rubio was livid when an anonymous source leaked it to the National Journal on July 16; b) the Crist camp reneged on a commitment to clear the attorney general field for Rubio; or c) It never really existed beyond discussions.

Rubio says it came down to a gut check: His wife, Jeanette, asked him whether he wanted to be U.S. senator or attorney general. That decided it.

• • •

Still, the effort to push out Rubio persisted. Some Republicans expected the death blow would be Cardenas — a political mentor to Rubio — publicly endorsing Crist on Aug. 5, 2009.

Cardenas won't reveal their private conversations, but said at the time he was convinced Rubio had zero chance of winning.

"I have strong personal feelings for Marco and his family and it bothered me greatly then that he was risking a brilliant future. I spoke to him like I would to one of my sons,'' Cardenas said. "At the end Marco stuck with the courage of his convictions and proved that passion for one's beliefs coupled with great ability are more powerful than polling numbers."

Money also matters, however, and Rubio and his team knew they might not survive another fundraising quarter like the last one.

"The hard truth is that no one outside of a small number of activists cares about you right now as a stand-alone candidate. And our 2nd Quarter fundraising numbers will make many care even less,'' advisers Harris, Miller and Thompson wrote in a memo to Rubio that summer.

They came up with a risky plan for raising more money: invest scarce resources into a direct mail campaign prospecting for donors across the country. The idea was to build a list of small donors who could be encouraged to give repeatedly — but it's an expensive effort that typically doesn't pay off until late in a campaign when new donors give again and again.

"I don't think at that point in the juncture of the campaign too many people would have advised increasing our mail program considering where we were in the campaign and what we were up against,'' noted Rubio finance director Zach Burr. "We had no choice."

• • •

In October, the Rubio campaign e-mail announcing he'd raised nearly $1 million in three months exploded across the political world. Crist had a real race on his hands.

What didn't emerge for days was that Rubio had also spent most of that $1 million prospecting for donors. No matter; Crist's aura of inevitability was shattered by Rubio's direct mail gambit.

"It was one-third confidence in our long-term prospects, one-third rolling of the dice, and one-third smoke and mirrors,'' Harris said.

The ball was rolling, and Crist continued to dismiss Rubio's momentum.

In late October 2009, Crist's 25-point lead over Rubio among Republican voters dropped to 15 points. In January, Quinnipiac found Rubio leading by 3 percentage points. By April, Rubio was ahead by 23, even after Crist finally began launching negative ads.

By the time Crist dropped out of his lifelong party to run as an independent, the Rubio campaign had already spent months predicting far and wide that Crist might run as an independent. It used to drive the Crist campaign nuts denying it over and over.

For a while, Crist the independent candidate looked viable against Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

But by September, Rubio had the lead and never looked back. It was a 20-point blowout Nov. 2, so far away from how crazy Rubio's candidacy looked just 18 months earlier.

In those lonely 16-hour days criss-crossing Florida in the F-150 pickup, Rubio said it often: "There are easier things to do than run against the incumbent governor of your own party from your state."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio rose against odds 11/14/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 14, 2010 10:50am]

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