Marco Rubio has become the darling of the conservative movement this year, but both the media as well as Governor Charlie Crist are beginning to turn the screws on the U.S. Senate hopeful, as the longest Senate campaign in modern Florida history continues.
Last week in Tampa, before addressing the North Tampa Rotary Club, the "It" boy on the GOP circuit encountered some turbulence on his way to his anointment as the Cuban-American reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.
In an interview with WFLA's Keith Cate, Rubio said if he were in Charlie Crist's shoes last winter, he too would have accepted Florida's share of the federal stimulus dollars.
Then, moments later, he was queried by several reporters on the topic du jour in the state capital — rail — and asked how he'd vote on it if he were still in the Legislature.
"I would have to know a lot more about the cost benefit details of the bill," he said several times in the course of a few minutes. As St. Petersburg Times Political Editor Adam Smith recorded his response with his hand-held video camera, Rubio said, "I've been a supporter of rail, but not as an employee program, which I think it's being sold as."
Smith later wrote that Rubio was straddling the "mushy middle." The Times then ran an editorial later in the week characterizing his nuanced perspective on the issue as a classic flip-flop, depicting two different faces of the former House Speaker titled, "Which is it, Marco?"
The Crist campaign seized on his alleged "waffling" and posted a Web video ad that featured the exchange with the media in Tampa.
Former USF-St. Pete political science professor Daryl Paulson thinks Rubio is getting somewhat of a bad rap on rail. "I think a bill that exists last year might have different dimensions than what the legislature was voting on this year," he says. He also thinks that the press scrutiny is positive for Rubio in that it demonstrates the media is taking him more seriously as a candidate.
But for a real flip-flop, check out the former House Speaker's stance on cap-and-trade legislation, another bête noir for the conservative base.
Rubio has hammered Crist on his plans to implement such a policy, even though the governor has run away from it in 2009.
But where was Rubio on the issue? In March of 2007, Rubio told the Florida House, "Today Florida has the opportunity to pursue bold energy policies, not just because they're good for our environment, but because people can actually make money at doing it... This nation and ultimately the world, is headed towards emission caps..."
Note that was Rubio speaking — not Al Gore or Van Jones.
If nothing else, last week demonstrated that the tide has turned slightly in the narrative of the Crist/Rubio battle, with eight months still to go before the primary. Charlie Crist has been busted for changing his positions on some issues by Rubio and the media. Now it's Marco's turn.
In Tampa last week, Rubio delivered a relatively short speech to the Rotarians, which could have simply been titled, "The case for American exceptionalism."
Rubio began his campaign this spring by calling President Obama a socialist, and now he's using — in the words of journalist Sam Tenanhaus — the conservative dogmas of the moment, which is that the American way of life since its inception is now under serious threat because of the return of Big Government.
The Miami native said that even though politicians traditionally throw out bromides like "we're at a crossroads," in this case the country truly is at a crossroads: "We can choose to be like the rest of the world, or we can choose to find 21st century solutions that continue to make us exceptional."
Unlike some conservatives who utter reckless statements to gin up the base (such as Texas Governor Rick Perry declaring that Texas might soon secede from the union), Rubio rationally described why some Americans (such as Democrats or citizens in Europe) might want government to pay for education, health care, daycare and the like.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these things," he said patiently. "These are all desirable goals. And quite frankly, there's nothing immoral about government providing those things for you."
But you knew there would be a "but" coming.
"The problem is, in order for the government [to] provide these things for you, you must have a level of government involvement that makes the possibility of prosperity for Americans impossible."
As noted by columnist Nina Easton in Time recently, the fear of big government has resurfaced with a flourish.
According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken recently, only 23 percent of those surveyed say they trust the government "always or most of the time" — that's the lowest rating in 12 years. Similarly, those voters "who think the government should do more to solve problems and meet the needs of people" has dropped 5 points since Obama took office.
And Rubio is ready for the fight. Recently rebuffed by the governor for his calls to have debates anytime soon, the former House Speaker seemed to be clearly calling out one man when he said in Tampa last week that "the single biggest problem in politics is people willing to say and do anything. They'll be whatever they want you to be to get your vote..."
He may have been referring to his opponent, but lately he's seemed to be falling into the same trap. This is his first statewide race, against a man who's made a career out of running for higher office. Rubio may have come blazing out of the gates, but he's got a long way to go before GOP voters decide on their man come August 24.