TAMPA — What goes through Marco Rubio's mind in the dark of night?
"Just cutting taxes not enough. We need Tax Reform!,'' he shouted via Twitter recently at 1:55 a.m. "Tax code is too complicated, too anti-job creation and full of unfair exemptions."
Another night at 2:37 a.m.: "In last election Americans voted for change. But they did not vote to expand size or role of govt. That was not what Prez. campaigned on."
The line between fearless warrior, unhinged zealot and doomed martyr can be hazy. It's hard to tell where to place the underdog Republican U.S. Senate candidate.
On the surface, it's absurd: an obscure Republican former legislator from Miami trying to beat Florida's most popular Republican, a sitting governor named Charlie Crist, who happens to be a record-shattering fundraiser. And 37-year-old Rubio intends to do this in the face of the national Republican establishment uniting behind Crist, and the Florida Republican Party bent on pushing Rubio out altogether.
Even many fans of the former state House speaker think the best he can hope for is to boost his profile to become a credible challenger for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012.
Maybe it matters that in Crist's home county of Pinellas, more than half the people at this week's party meeting signed up to help Rubio's campaign. Or that the words "Charlie Crist" draw boos at some Republican gatherings. Or that local Republican parties this week have been scolding state GOP chairman Jim Greer for trying to throw the party's full support and resources behind Crist.
Polls show nearly seven in 10 Republicans approve of Crist's brief performance as governor, so the challenge for Rubio is spreading doubts about Crist's conservatism — and having the money to do it — beyond hard-core activists. That means aggressively tearing down the governor's record and ideas.
"The way to win for him has got to be all the way or nothing,'' said Republican consultant Adam Goodman. "The problem for him is he's going to hit the line where the party — and even the conservatives — will rebel against him. That's his Catch-22."
Rubio wants to cast this primary as a titanic battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, and he is drawing fawning coverage from the national conservative media — a Republican Barack Obama, swooned the Weekly Standard — eager to knock down the notion that Crist's brand of sunny centrism is the GOP's path to success.
"I can't find a great leader in human history that was popular, and what that tells me is leadership and popularity is not the same thing," Rubio told a roaring crowd of 150 at Crabby Bill's in Tampa on Friday.
These functions are hardly representative of the electorate, or even the Republican electorate. But they do reflect the sentiments of the likeliest voters in a Republican primary, many of whom are incensed at the images of Crist hugging President Obama at a rally for the $787 billion stimulus package.
"I'm one of the ABC people: anybody but Charlie," said Alex Stearns, a Safety Harbor businessman who came to see Rubio on Friday. "He hasn't manned up and showed leadership. On issue after issue, he just hasn't stepped up."
Rubio in theory is a dream candidate for the beleaguered Republican Party — young, telegenic and Hispanic at a time when the party is struggling to reach more than white males. A Cuban-American Jeb Bush protégé whose father tended bar and mother cleaned hotel rooms, Rubio is conservative to the core.
"I'd call it an extreme brand of conservatism,'' said St. Petersburg lawyer Sean Scott, who met with then-Florida House Speaker Rubio while considering a run for the state House in 2006 and was instructed about the GOP being the emancipation party.
"Marco is a student of history," Scott said, "and he made a connection between the emancipation of the slaves under Lincoln and the emancipation of our current populace by undoing the things Lyndon Johnson had done as part of the Great Society programs,'' which included a host of welfare and antipoverty programs, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.
Central to his platform is a radical overhaul of the federal tax code, including scrapping income and payroll taxes in favor of a national sales tax. The current system, he says, amounts to class warfare and redistribution of wealth.
Such talk goes over well at the Republican activist gatherings Rubio is attending. Amid the cheers and anti-Crist talk at Crabby Bill's Friday afternoon, this idea that Rubio actually has a shot didn't look so crazy.
"I will not raise as much money as the other people, but I will not be outworked,'' he said, as a standing ovation erupted. "I will not be out-dreamed and out-hoped. I think we can do this."
Times/Herald reporter Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.