For a GOP in need of stars, Florida’s Marco Rubio shines

Distrust of the Obama administration ran high and hot at the annual luncheon of the conservative Eagle Forum, but featured speaker Marco Rubio wasn’t there to fan the flames or bemoan a liberal assault on family values.

Angry conservatives have become a cliche in the age of President Obama. But Rubio, the front-runner for the GOP nod in Florida’s Senate race, takes a different tack -- a low-key, measured indignation delivered with the earnestness of a senior class president.

The former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Rubio is no Sarah Palin-style rabble-rouser. This despite being claimed by the “tea party” movement as one of their own, and being technically an insurgent in his run against fellow Republican Charlie Crist, Florida’s governor.

Rubio frames his candidacy in terms of a grave mission -- to rescue the GOP from itself, restore the legacy of Ronald Reagan and challenge Obama’s agenda.

“I think the folks in charge of government have overreached,” Rubio said after the luncheon. “They quite frankly misinterpreted what they thought was a mandate.”

Rubio, the American-born son of Cuban refugees, avoids social issues where he can (“I could care less about private lives, what people do in the privacy of their own house.”), preferring to stay metronomically fixed on federal spending, the growing deficit and taxes.

He calls the coming election a referendum on the size and role of American government.

Polls have him handily whipping the moderate Crist, once a popular figure now saddled with the state’s moribund economy and vulnerable to attacks from conservatives over his support of the federal economic stimulus package.

The rapid ascent has made Rubio a new conservative icon in a party desperate for stars.

In another example of his building momentum, Rubio this week showed off some newfound fundraising muscle. His campaign said it had raised $3.6 million in the last 90 days, putting him close to equal financial footing with Crist, who once held a huge cash advantage.

The announcement came the same week that Rudolph W. Giuliani campaigned for Rubio, signaling that moderate Republicans were being drawn to his candidacy.

In the meantime, speculation grew in Florida that Crist was readying a play as an independent after he clashed with fellow Republicans in the Legislature over a series of issues. But Crist tried to quell those rumors Thursday, releasing a statement saying he would stay on the ballot as a member of the GOP.

Months ago, when Rubio trailed Crist in polls by as much as 30 percentage points, he spoke to a smattering of Republican groups and Rotary clubs. He courted tea partyers and spoke at anti-tax rallies.

Now, with a sizable lead in every poll, he’s being praised by sitting GOP senators such as South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn.

Like Massachusetts’ new Republican Sen. Scott Brown, Rubio, 38, offers the party a promise of reinvention. But he is more conservative than Brown. At the same time, he’s more issue focused and less confrontational than Palin.

At a breakfast speech before the Eagle Forum event, Rubio spoke of the potential of free markets and low taxes to eradicate poverty -- a paean to “trickle-down economics.”

In Reagan-like fashion, he mocked liberals for believing the U.S. is “diminished” and for trying to transform the nation into a “European-style” state.

Rubio grew up in suburban Miami, his heart set on football, not politics. (He even married a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader. They have four children.) His mother worked as a maid, a cashier and a factory worker; his father was a bartender.

“I’m one generation removed from a different life,” Rubio said.

After law school and a stint as a city commissioner in his hometown, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives at 29 and became speaker in 2006. Term limits forced his exit in 2008.

“He’s young, Hispanic, urban,” said John Knowles, an admirer at the breakfast. “He checks all these boxes that conservative Republicans haven’t been able to check.”

Everett Wilkinson, a leader of the Florida Tea Party Patriots, said he hadn’t seen Rubio deviate from the movement’s principles to attract moderates.

“That’s what we’re watching,” he said, adding there is a fear among tea partyers that with Rubio’s skyrocketing profile, “he’s becoming very mainstream.”

Such fears would doubtless become amplified should Rubio defeat Crist in the August primary and face off in November against the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek.

A recent Mason-Dixon poll suggests Crist’s attacks on Rubio over his use of a Republican Party credit card for thousands of dollars in personal expenses may be having an effect. (Rubio says he covered all personal bills with his own money.)

Crist, who bypassed running for a second term as governor to shoot for the Senate seat, has also been damaged by his close connection to the former head of the state GOP, Jim Greer, who is under criminal investigation.