Behind in polls, Meek, Crist call GOP’s Rubio extremist, ‘kooky’ in Fla. Senate race

By Brendan Farrington, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rubio portrayed as extremist in Fla. Senate race

ORLANDO, Fla. — Marco Rubio’s opponents want most voters to think he’s a far-right extremist, but they’re also trying to convince the tea party supporters who propelled him to the GOP Senate nomination that he’s just another politician who will say one thing and do another.

The mixed message is a reflection of Rubio’s lead in recent polls. Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, struggling to win votes in his own party, and Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent after years of promoting himself as a conservative, need to do something fast to catch up.

Meek and Crist don’t have much love for each other, but they are united in their criticism of Rubio.

“Marco Rubio represents a very, very scary way of thinking, a very conservative, right-wing philosophy that will not create jobs in this state, will not help small businesses and will not protect and preserve Social Security,” Meek said Thursday, the day after he and Crist ganged up on Rubio in a debate, repeatedly calling him a radical right extremist. Crist calls Rubio the tea party movement’s poster boy.

But he and Meek also say Rubio is trying to be a fiscal conservative when he’s not. Both point to what they say was excessive spending when he was House speaker.

“The Marco Rubio I served with was the king of pork, putting before me almost $500 million that I had to veto,” Crist said Thursday. “The words don’t match the actions and that’s disturbing.”

Rubio, meanwhile, is sticking to the script he’s followed since he got in the race: President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress support disastrous domestic spending, tax and health care policies. In Wednesday’s debate, as he has for months, he portrayed Crist as a political opportunist. Meek, he said, voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi almost down the line.

Rubio has become a favorite of conservatives nationally, but he’s not a typical tea party candidate. Elsewhere, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Rand Paul of Kentucky — have channeled voter anger to knock off establishment politicians in GOP primaries.

Rubio not only rose through the Republican establishment, he was one of its highest leaders. As House speaker, he was one of the three most powerful Republicans in Tallahassee and raised millions for the state Republican Party.

But it’s his message, not his background, that has won over Florida tea party leaders.

“Just because someone is a politician doesn’t automatically disqualify them for being appealing to the tea party,” said Everett Wilkinson, who has organized many tea party rallies around the state.

Rubio says serving in Tallahassee is different than serving in Washington, and he was an outsider when he got into the race. Crist bolted the GOP to run as an independent when it became clear Rubio’s tea party support would make him unbeatable in the primary.

“I don’t have any insider experience in Washington,” Rubio said. “I don’t begrudge it, but the fact of the matter is that when I got into this race last year, the entire Republican political establishment in Washington and in Tallahassee were aligned against me.”

Though the establishment is now embracing him, Rubio hasn’t lost tea party support. He said that’s because his message hasn’t changed.

“Now there’s some synergy in the agenda, but the bottom line is we haven’t changed what we’re running on to gain their support,” he said.

Crist says Rubio is an example of the Republican party being hijacked by the far right and cites O’Donnell, Angle and Paul as other examples.

“He’s the poster boy for the tea party,” Crist said. “It’s kooky stuff.”

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