MIAMI — Floridians overwhelmingly elected Marco Rubio, the 39-year-old son of a bartender and Kmart stock clerk, to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, capping a tumultuous election and historic downfall of Gov. Charlie Crist.
With his convincing defeat of Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek, Rubio is now officially crowned as one of the brightest lights in the national GOP. More than 200 media outlets from 12 countries covered his victory party, and pundits already are talking about him as a future presidential contender.
Crist's unprecedented campaign as a nonpartisan candidate fell far short against the former state House speaker from West Miami and the conservative wave that swept across the country.
"We make a great mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican party," Rubio told more than 1,000 people packed into the Biltmore hotel in Coral Gables. "What they are is a second chance, a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."
For a party that has struggled to broaden its appeal in recent years, Rubio is a charismatic new face, and in some respects the GOP's own version of Barack Obama.
"No matter where I go or whatever title I may achieve I will always be the son of exiles and will always be the heir of two generations of unfulfilled dreams," said Rubio, who in January will become the youngest member of the U.S. Senate.
Given Rubio's comfortable lead in the polls for several weeks, it's was easy to forget just how far he climbed — and how spectacularly Crist fell.
The former speaker was 30 points down when he announced his candidacy in May 2009. Even longtime friends told him he was crazy to take on the seemingly invincible Crist.
But Rubio's message that big government was out of control proved pitch-perfect for the rising tea party movement. "Reclaim America" was Marco's campaign mantra, and his stump speech barely changed from the beginning of his campaign to the end.
"He is the right candidate for the times," said former Gov. Jeb Bush. "He has run a hopeful, aspirational race and he will make a fine U.S. senator. I am very proud of him and of Florida."
Rubio was a darling of the tea party movement, but he also transcended it. Polished and always careful to avoid inflammatory language, he instilled passionate enthusiasm among ardent conservatives and confidence in many moderates.
Exit polls conducted in Florida for the St. Petersburg Times and assorted national media outlets found that more than eight in 10 voters who considered themselves conservative voted for Rubio as did more than one in three who considered themselves moderate.
"Through this campaign, Marco has connected with millions of Floridians —voters that overwhelmingly want someone who will challenge the direction that politicians in Washington are taking our country,'' said state Republican Chairman John Thrasher. "His incredible life story, message, and ideas to reclaim our country have clearly struck a chord with Florida voters of all political parties."
Crist, a finalist to be John McCain's running mate in 2008, will be unemployed in two months and is a pariah to many in his lifelong party.
Four years ago hundreds of lobbyists, Republican politicos and supporters converged at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort to celebrate his election as governor. Tuesday night, the roughly 150 people on hand for Crist at the Vinoy were mostly longtime friends and family members.
"This is a tough night," Crist said. "But there is a brighter future ahead."
Speaking briefly with red eyes, Crist said he believed Rubio would serve Florida admirably as its next senator, then thanked his family, including campaign manager and sister, Margaret, and his wife, Carole.
"She's never been through one of these things, poor kid," Crist said of his wife. "I have. It happens."
Crist's narrow path to victory would have required him to win a majority of Democrats and independents and just enough Republicans. But as long as Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek remained remotely viable, that became impossible.
Despite handily winning the Democratic primary against a billionaire challenger, Jeff Greene, Meek never gained traction in the general election. He was beset by rumors and speculation that he might drop out to give Crist a shot at beating Rubio.
"We won tonight. There are people throughout this state that went out and voted for the representation they wanted. We stood on our feet at all times,'' said Meek.
The volatile campaign started to take shape in late 2008 when Republican incumbent Mel Martinez announced he would not seek a second term.
Jeb Bush considered running for the open seat, but decided against it. So did Attorney General Bill McCollum. Conventional wisdom at the time had it that the senate seat was Crist's for the taking.
"Everyone on the Republican side that's talking about running would step aside and acknowledge that Charlie Crist would be the best candidate," Rubio said in January 2009 when Crist's approval ratings approached 70 percent.
Rubio jumped into the race that May, despite party leaders in Tallahassee and Washington trying to muscle him out. With little money, he crisscrossed the state talking to tea party activists and grass roots Republican activists.
Crist had never done much to cultivate his conservative base, and by the time he realized how serious a threat Rubio was, it was too late. To many tea party activists, the governor who embraced bipartisan compromise and Barack Obama's stimulus had come to symbolize all that had gone wrong with the Republican party.
By April, Rubio had built up a lead of more than 20 points among Republican primary voters that more than $1 million in negative ads by Crist could not dent. The primary looked hopeless, and Crist dropped from his lifelong party to run as an independent.
Crist led in the polls initially, but Rubio pulled ahead in August and stayed ahead.
"Charlie's a fighter. He'll be back,'' said Watson Haynes, a longtime friend and former high school classmate of Crist. "We knew what the numbers were, we knew what the odds were. This is just a stopping point for Charlie."
Times/Herald staff writers Aaron Sharockman, Melissa Sanchez, and Robert Samuels contributed to this report.