As Fla. tea party's Rubio surges, Crist and Meek turn firepower on each other

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 7:12 PM

TAMPA - The high-profile Florida Senate race started out as the first major skirmish between a tea party candidate and the Republican establishment, but with a month until Election Day it has evolved into a battle that is tearing apart Democrats.

At issue in this famously chaotic political state is whether Gov. Charlie Crist, who fled the GOP and is running as an independent, or Rep. Kendrick Meek, who prevailed in a bruising Democratic primary, is the more viable candidate against tea party favorite Marco Rubio.

At the moment, the answer, it increasingly seems, might be neither.

Rubio is surging in recent polls, while Crist and Meek's fight for the Sunshine State's Democrats has escalated and gotten more personal by the day. Last week, Crist staged two large rallies in vote-rich South Florida to accept the endorsement of Robert Wexler, a popular former Democratic congressman, who all but ordered the state's many Jewish voters to back Crist.

Meek, who hopes to become the first African American elected statewide in Florida, countered with a tough new ad that shows clips of Crist defending his conservatism. Meek is also drawing prominent surrogates, including President Obama and former president Bill Clinton, both of whom he said would hold rallies in the campaign's closing weeks. And on Thursday, Meek brought former vice president Al Gore to a boisterous labor union hall here to urge Democrats not to "throw your vote away" on Crist.

"It's an old charge in politics that somebody flip-flops," Gore said, making a rare appearance on the campaign trail. "It's a little unusual to have somebody flip-flop and then flap-flip. Seriously. You know what I'm talking about. As I say, I like the guy, but I do not really know where he stands on lots of these really important issues. . . . We want somebody who's going to stand up for what he believes and stick to it and fight for it and do the right thing."

Vying for diverse voters

Some national Democrats remain unconvinced that Meek can win, but all have lined up behind him. Privately, party strategists say an added benefit might be that his candidacy could drive up turnout among black voters. Blacks make up roughly 10 percent of Florida's electorate, making them a critical voting bloc for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink.

"She is going to get a spillover, Obama effect from Meek, this young African American candidate," said Sharon Wright Austin, a political scientist at the University of Florida.

The Miami congressman has been campaigning with vigor, but Meek's energy has not translated into support in the polls. And with a relatively underfunded campaign, it is unclear how Meek might afford the television advertising barrage necessary to break through in a diverse, costly state of more than 18 million people.

"I'm a fighter, ladies and gentlemen, and you know something? I don't give up. And I don't give in," Meek said at the labor rally, eliciting loud cheers.

Seizing an opening

With Crist and Meek aiming much of their firepower at each other, Rubio has seized the opening with a hopeful message that draws favorable comparisons to former president Ronald Reagan. His ads and stump speeches tug at the heartstrings, reminding voters of his upbringing as a son of Cuban immigrants and decrying a Washington that he says inhibits the American dream.

"My parents came to this country and worked very hard and sacrificed a lot so that I could live the American dream," Rubio says in one of his ads. "Unfortunately that dream is threatened by the actions of some politicians in Washington."

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