FORT MYERS — U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio reveled in support from conservatives looking for a voice Wednesday in a part-fundraiser, part-pep rally that brought full circle one of the most stunning reversals in Florida politics.
It was Feb. 10, 2009, when his campaign rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, welcomed President Barack Obama to the Harborside Event Center in Fort Myers to pitch a proposed $787 billion antidote to the recession. The popular Republican governor and Democratic president put their arms around each other in a rare display of bipartisanship.
One year later, the hug has become the defining image of Crist's slumping campaign for the GOP's U.S. Senate nomination, and Rubio was the one grinning on the Fort Myers stage, reclaiming the turf as his own.
"From tea parties to marches, from New Jersey to Virginia, from Massachusetts and soon even here in Florida … all across this country people are making it very clear," Rubio told more than 300 people at the so-called hug rally sponsored by FreedomPAC, a conservative network group led by former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey. "What they're going to choose in 2010 are leaders who will stand up to this agenda and offer a clear alternative."
Armey was sick and not at the rally, and the audience was significantly smaller than the 1,500 people who attended Obama's town hall-style meeting at the same venue last year.
"We're here because we want what's going on to stop," said Alice Pailthorp of Tampa.
Rubio was ahead of Crist 47 to 44 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released late last month, though the 3 percentage-point lead is well within the poll's margin of error.
The governor still has a healthy advantage in fundraising, too.
But national anti-incumbent sentiment and a GOP divided between establishment Republicans and tea party activists have given Rubio a boost for now, more than six months before the Aug. 24 primary in which only Republicans can vote.
Trying to capitalize on his upswing, Rubio launched a two-week "stimulus bomb" fundraising effort Feb. 1 meant to bring in $787,000 — $1,000 for every $1 billion he said was "wasted" on the spending plan.
On Wednesday, Rubio's campaign announced that it had raised $665,000, with a few hours left for fundraising. In an online video the same day, Rubio said: "That stimulus package was designed to stimulate jobs in America, but it has miserably failed."
Federal government figures dispute that, saying stimulus money saved the equivalent of 34,966 jobs in Florida. That represents about 87,700 actual workers, according to a tally by state agencies, Don Winstead, Crist's stimulus czar, said Wednesday.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writers Marc Caputo and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.