After Twittering, YouTubing and Facebooking his way to near-celebrity status on the national political scene, U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio is going old school this week with a statewide bus tour.
The trip, which will loop-de-loop around central Florida from Tuesday to Friday, marks the first bus tour of the 2010 election in the nation's largest battleground state. In an increasingly technology-driven, instantaneous political world, Rubio's trek shows that frontrunning campaigns still see value in taking a busload of reporters on a 70-mile-per-hour road trip with stops for gas and food.
"Marco is running as if he's 10 points behind, and that's smart," said Tallahassee political consultant Mike Hanna, a Rubio supporter and veteran of former Gov. Jeb Bush's bus tours. "It's a great way to get free media and connect to real Floridians."
An automated Rasmussen Reports survey released Monday showed Crist's support falling to 28 percent, its lowest level ever, versus 57 percent for Rubio.
The bus tour -— famously chronicled in the Timothy Crouse's book The Boys on the Bus about the 1972 presidential campaign — is a throwback to the pre-Internet days when candidates depended on reporters scribbling in their notebooks to communicate to a mass audience. In a state where a week of television costs well over $1 million, a well-organized bus tour can pay dividends in the form of free publicity.
Conversely, a tour with sparsely attended events will also be well documented in the press and blogosphere.
"If you have an event that is a total bust, it raises questions about the whole operation and also about the enthusiasm surrounding the campaign," said political consultant Brian Crowley, who took numerous bus tours as a former political reporter for the Palm Beach Post. "If they can't pull a crowd together, can they get the vote out?"
Rubio's itinerary shows a classic Florida mix of small towns and major media markets, from the Ol' Time Gun Shop in Hudson to The Villages retirement community in the highly competitive Orlando area. He will tape an interview with FOX News conservative talk show host Sean Hannity in the Villages on Tuesday, while an event at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Wednesday will be streamed live on the Internet to other college groups around the state.
The schedule also capitalizes on the outburst of tea party rallies this week to coincide with Thursday's federal income tax filing deadline.
Crist's campaign manager, Eric Eikenberg, said Rubio's participation in the protests in Lakeland and Vero Beach should remind voters that he has not followed the governor's lead in posting his tax returns.
Crist hasn't scheduled a bus tour yet but Eikenberg said, "We've done them before and it's a great opportunity to mingle with voters."
Crowley advised Crist to plan one in a hurry.
"If I were Charlie," Crowley said, "I would hop on a bus the day after the legislative session is over and spend two weeks stopping at every town I could."