TAMPA — U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a hero to many conservative purists and Marco Rubio's earliest big endorsement, told Hillsborough Republicans Saturday night that conservative candidates can win anywhere.
The implications of the line delivered at Hillsborough's Lincoln Day Dinner were clear: If the GOP picks Rubio over Gov. Charlie Crist this August, Rubio can win in November.
"If I could have one or two people like (Rubio) in the Senate, we could take back our country," said DeMint, a first-term senator from South Carolina. "I know some of you are supporting his opponent, and that's great. But the opportunity we have now in Florida is pretty incredible, to demonstrate to the country that a good, common-sense conservative Republican can win anywhere in the country."
Earlier, DeMint riffed off one of his stock lines, saying: "I'd rather 30 Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters," referring to the Republican-turned-Democrat from Pennsylvania.
Neither Rubio nor Crist attended Saturday's dinner at the T. Pepin Hospitality Centre in Tampa.
DeMint, 58, quickly has become a spokesman and cheerleader for conservative causes nationwide. On Saturday, he described moderate Republicans in the House and Senate as earmark-hungry and unwilling to challenge the Democratic leadership and President Barack Obama.
He also touted his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, which is channeling money to conservatives running in traditionally moderate states like Florida. The fund has helped the Senate campaigns of Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, who could face Specter in November, and Chuck DeVore, a little-known state assemblyman in California who faces a GOP primary against former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.
Then there's Rubio.
DeMint endorsed Rubio in June 2009, when he trailed Crist by more than 30 points in the polls. In an interview before his speech, DeMint said Senate Republicans suggested the endorsement was a waste. "They told me he wouldn't stay in the race, he didn't have a chance, Gov. Crist could raise a lot of money," DeMint said. "And I've been having a battle with some in my party about the difference between just going for numbers and going for people who actually believe in something.
"And it was clear after talking to Marco … that he was passionate about the principles of freedom and he was ready to take on Goliath."
In January, DeMint organized an online rapid fundraising drive for Rubio called a "money bomb." The event, timed with the anniversary of the passage of the federal stimulus bill, brought in more than $860,000. The two have since built a Web site — DeMintRubio.com — and plan to make three South Carolina campaign stops together March 15.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2273.