He's winning glowing praise from conservatives casting him as the future of the GOP, but Marco Rubio's early fundraising creates doubts about his viability in a Senate matchup against Gov. Charlie Crist.
Nobody expected the former state House speaker from Miami to match Crist in fundraising, but Rubio's announcement Tuesday that he raised just $340,000 in three months had Republicans questioning his ability to compete in a state with so many large and distinct metro markets.
"It's hard to call him credible when he only raised that much in his first quarter. ... No candidate wins if they're outraised 10 to 1," said Republican consultant Jamie Miller of Sarasota. "Candidates sometimes like to say, 'I'm running a real grass-roots campaign, going to all these clubs where people are clapping and happy to see me.' But that's about 3 percent of the voters."
The actual fundraising reports are not due until next week, and the Crist campaign on Tuesday did not release its campaign finance numbers or comment on Rubio's figures. Crist allies say he is likely to raise about $3 million in his first quarter as a U.S. Senate candidate, but even that may be low for a sitting governor who has been raising money at a breakneck pace.
"We're still counting," said Dane Eagle, finance director for the Crist campaign.
Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami reported another strong fundraising quarter for his Senate race. He raised more than $1.2 million in the three months ending June 30, bringing his total to about $3 million.
Rubio, 38, has been seen as a wild card in a Republican primary that many national conservatives are touting as a contest for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. Early polls show the more moderate Crist is the heavy favorite to win the nomination and general election, but he antagonized many conservative activists by enthusiastically supporting President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package.
Influential antitax groups including the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform have been heaping praise on Rubio while attacking Crist's fiscal record, which includes supporting a $1 per pack tax increase on cigarettes. The Miami Republican has also received fawning profiles in conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard, and the early buzz led to high expectations for Rubio's ability to raise big money.
David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, said Rubio doesn't have to match Crist dollar-for-dollar to win, but he hasn't answered the question of whether he's a financially viable candidate.
"He's got to raise a lot more to make the race something he can win," Keating said. "If he can get to the $4 (million) to $5 million range, then I think it's a doable race. I don't know if he's on track or not."
The Rubio campaign noted that nearly 2,500 people from all 50 states donated, and most were small donors who can give again and again before hitting the maximum of $2,400.
In an e-mail to supporters, Rubio said he was encouraged by his fundraising and noted that many early donors will be able to contribute more.
"This is a strong statement about the direction you believe our Republican Party, our state and our nation should take," he said in the e-mail.
This was the first fundraising period since Rubio announced his candidacy, though earlier this year he raised about $250,000 when he was still in an exploratory phase. At this point in the 2004 Republican Senate primary, Mel Martinez had raised $1.7 million, then-U.S. Rep. Mark Foley had raised more than $700,000, Larry Klayman had raised $673,000 and Bill McCollum had raised $330,000.
"A lot of people are very impressed with Marco, but that excitement has to translate into money,'' said Republican consultant David Johnson of Tallahassee. "The problem is people are not going to get to know him unless he's on TV. It's not enough just to be appearing on MSNBC or sending out videos on YouTube. You've got to be (advertising) on TV."
Republican media consultant Adam Goodman of Tampa said the early finance numbers highlight how unconventional a campaign Rubio may have to run. It could take months to judge whether his grass-roots rebellion is gaining steam.
"There was no true model for the Obama campaign and what they did in 2008,'' Goodman said. "On the positive side, you could say maybe Marco's on his way to replicating the Obama model for the first time in Florida."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.