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Rubio bets message vs. money wins Florida Senate seat

TALLAHASSEE — Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio was walking through the Tallahassee airport parking lot looking for his rental car when he came to an obvious conclusion.

“It’s not the Cadillac. We didn’t raise enough money,” he said with a broad smile, seemingly not bothered by the fact that primary opponent Gov. Charlie Crist is raising almost $13 for every $1 Rubio brings in.

It’s not just the money that gives Crist an edge. The governor is known by virtually everyone in Florida, while Rubio isn’t well known outside Miami-Dade County or the state Capitol, where he served as House Speaker for two years. Crist also has good poll numbers, and is one of the best campaigners in the state.

How does Rubio possibly win? Certainly not by running more TV ads. For Rubio, the strategy is message versus money, ideas versus name ID, positions versus popularity. And he is generating a buzz among the Republicans he does reach, showing charisma, strong speaking skills and a firm knowledge of issues facing the federal government.

He appeals to the base of the party with solid conservative positions on social issues, government spending and taxes. While he doesn’t attack Crist while campaigning, he clearly sets himself up as the alternative for Republicans who believe Crist has gone too far toward the political middle, particularly by promoting President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package.

The question is whether that will be enough to seriously compete with Crist in the Aug. 24, 2010, primary.

Even Rubio acknowledges the conventional wisdom that he can’t beat Crist, and then he’ll express confidence that he will prevail if voters have a chance to compare the two candidates.

While Crist avoids talking about federal issues or gives essentially non-answers to questions about health care and other topics being debated in Washington, Rubio talks to anyone he can — and spending as little money as he can doing it.

After walking past the Cadillac on his recent trip, he climbed into the passenger seat of a Nissan Rouge for a three-hour, 200-mile drive to Pensacola. He spoke to the Pensacola News-Journal editorial board then spent an hour talking to nearly 100 people at a Gulf Coast Economics Club luncheon.

The luncheon crowd loved him.

“I’m most impressed with you — most impressed. You are great,” Mickey Graves, 72, of Gulf Breeze, told Rubio afterward as she handed him a $100 check.

Graves, a Republican, had never seen Rubio speak, and she said later that she doesn’t easily hand out money to politicians. But she said she’s had enough of Crist and sees his decision to run for Senate instead of a second term as governor as self-serving.

“He’s a little slick for me,” Graves said of Crist. But she sees Rubio as a person with ideas. “I liked everything he had to say,” Graves added, reaching into her purse for a small slip of paper. “In fact, I wrote it down so I could tell some of my friends.”

Her reaction was similar to many others in the room. They lined up to praise Rubio and hand him checks, all well below the $2,400 individual contribution limit Crist is used to receiving.

Rubio jumped back in the Rogue for the 200-mile trip back to Tallahassee, where the scene was repeated at a dinner with the Northeast Leon County Conservative Club — a little less than 100 people at the event, an hour-long discussion on a wide range of topics, more praise, more small checks. The crowd loved him.

At events like those, it’s easy to believe Rubio can convince Republican voters he’d be a better senator than Crist. But then simple mathematics presents some other realities.

There are 4 million Republican voters in Florida, a state that stretches more than 800 miles from Pensacola to Key West. If Rubio had two events a day, each in front of 100 Republicans, it would take 20,000 days — or nearly 55 years — to get his message to every Republican voter.

And a week of TV ads costs $1 million. Crist raised enough money for about three-and-a-half weeks of ads in just his first 50 days in the race. Rubio, who raised $340,000 during the first quarter after entering the race, is pretty much spending money as it comes in just to get the campaign off the ground and to get around the state.

But Rubio’s still outwardly in good spirits. As he left the Pensacola event, he told two volunteers, “We raised about $1,100 unsolicited. Only $6.4 million to go.” Again, he had broad smile, as if the money disadvantage isn’t bothering him.

“It’s clearly a race about someone who’s more experienced running statewide, who’s better known and has more access to resources versus someone who I believe has a very good message,” Rubio said on the drive back to Tallahassee. “That’s the race. I believe that if I have enough resources to communicate what I stand for, you’re going to have a highly competitive race that I will win. I believe that with all my heart.”

Rubio has already lost his campaign manager and a high-profile fundraiser has been dropped from the payroll to save money. Meanwhile, Crist has a hired team of phone solicitors who are working on a large list of potential donors. Reading from a script, one solicitor recently said times are tough, but even as much as $1,000 or $2,000 would help Crist get out his message. Rubio tells crowds that as little as $25 or $50 will help.

The irony is, Rubio actually delivers a message, and Crist, thus far, isn’t. He often answers reporters’ questions about federal issues by saying he’s too busy governing — and then takes time away from his job to raise campaign money at out-of-state events away from the public eye.

“If I believed that the things that I feel strongly about were being advocated and fought for in this campaign by somebody else, I would be inclined to let them do it,” Rubio said in Pensacola. “But I came to the conclusion that the consequences of inaction were too high and too great.”