CLEARWATER — After picking up a key endorsement Monday that could pump big money into his campaign, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio set to work on another win that would give Charlie Crist a big, symbolic blow in his home county.
The Miami Republican, challenging Crist for the U.S. Senate nomination, drew about 400 people Monday night to a meeting of the Pinellas Republican Party. In January, the group will hold a "straw poll" on whether local activists prefer Rubio or Crist as their nominee. While officially meaningless, a Pinellas victory for Rubio would be especially stinging coming from the Republican activists who know the governor best.
"I come to this community tonight running for the same office that one of your native sons is running for. This is someone that you know, someone that you voted for, someone that you raised money for, someone that you've worked for, someone you've invested time in all these years," said Rubio, declaring that President Barack Obama's big government agenda has put America at an extraordinary crossroads.
"Never before have we so needed people to go to Washington, D.C., to stand up to that message and offer the American people a clear alternative to that message," Rubio said in his third Tampa Bay stop in a week.
Crist is overwhelmingly beating Rubio in statewide polls and money-raising, but the contest is drawing national attention as the highest-profile example of the moderate vs. conservative battle within the GOP. The influential Club for Growth, which helped push Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter into the Democratic Party and recently spent about $1 million to defeat a liberal Republican in an upstate New York congressional election, on Monday formally endorsed Rubio.
"Marco Rubio is the real deal, one of the brightest young stars in American politics today, and a proven champion of economic liberty," said Club for Growth president Chris Chocola, noting that the club had concluded Rubio can beat Crist for the nomination and beat Democrat Kendrick Meek in the general election.
Even in Crist's home county, that view was common among the party faithful gathered Monday night at Tucson's restaurant. Republican executive committees tend to draw the most fervent and conservative activists, but it remains to be seen whether those hard-core partisans dominate the primary electorate.
"It's a sliver of the base," said Greg Truax, Crist's Hillsborough County campaign chairman, dismissing the significance of Crist's overwhelming losses in straw poll votes across the state lately.
Crist, though, appears to understand the symbolism of Rubio winning the support of his home county's most die-hard Republican door knockers and envelope stuffers. He stopped by unexpectedly at last month's Republican Executive Committee meeting and is scheduled to be the main speaker in December. The following month is the vote.
Former Pinellas Republican Chairman Tony DiMatteo, now a Rubio backer, said that it could be close and that he hears Crist has been working the phones.
U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, also attended Monday's meeting, but stressed that he avoids primary endorsements, even in cases like this involving a hometown colleague. But Beverly Young, his wife, offered her own thoughts after Rubio's rousing speech.
"I love Marco," she gushed.
"She's not endorsing either," said the congressman, ushering her away.
"I love Marco," she repeated before disappearing out the door.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.