Rubio rallies supporters one year after ‘The Hug’

FORT MYERS — U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio reveled in support from conservatives looking for a voice Wednesday at 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 home 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. Though it was far from a raucous crowd, the mostly white, middle-aged people in the audience showed their enthusiasm, carrying American flags and signs that read “Attention Washington, I am not your ATM” and “Prescription: Our Gov’t Needs A Bi-Partisan Enema.”

“We’re here because we want what’s going on to stop,” said Alice Pailthorp, of Tampa. “No more big government. No more ridiculous things like cap-and-trade and stimulus.”

Rubio was ahead of Crist 47 percent to 44 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released late last month, though the three-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.

“Some even in my own party don’t get it,” Rubio said at the rally, where he spoke for a little more than 10 minutes. “They don’t get it. What they say is they want to go to Washington because they want to be pragmatic.”

The crowd booed in support of Rubio’s sentiment.

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.

“As long as we have double-digit unemployment, that’s very troubling,” Winstead said. “But the fact of the matter is, without the stimulus funding, the unemployment rate would have been higher.”

As of Dec. 31, Florida had spent about $6.6 billion of the estimated $17 billion it will receive over the 2.5 years of stimulus, Winstead said.

Crist’s campaign has pounced on an interview Rubio gave to a Tampa TV station last year saying he would have accepted portions of the stimulus funding.

The former Florida House speaker from Miami has also been criticized for saying last week that the 2010 Census should count only American citizens, something that would probably result in Florida losing federal dollars and congressional seats.

His position may have drawn criticism in Florida, but Rubio has remained popular among national conservative Republicans. He was endorsed this week by U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, of Indiana, the No. 3 Republican in the House, and by Republican anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.