Marco Rubio's Delicate Dance With Tea Partiers

Monday's New York Times had a piece on Florida GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio and how he has deviated from the Tea Party script recently. As the article noted, he has shied away from supporting a change to the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. He says he doesn't consider Arizona's harsh immigration law a model for other states. And (horror of all horrors) he actually has some kind words for President Obama, whose personal story, he told the paper, "is a testament not just to his tenacity, but to America."

Yet these developments point to a longstanding dilemma for Rubio. As I noted in a story early this year, he has performed a delicate dance with the Tea Partiers from the beginning. He hasn't embraced them nearly as enthusiastically as have other Senate candidates, like Rand Paul in Kentucky or Sharron Angle in Nevada. He has struggled to harness the movement's energy without allowing its more incendiary aspects to taint him, by association, as an extremist. In practice, that has meant firing up the crowds at numerous Tea Party rallies across the state with antigovernment rhetoric, while at the same time taking pains to clarify that he's the candidate of the GOP, not the Tea Party.

For a long while, Rubio seemed to hit a sweet spot. The Tea Partiers declared him the real deal and helped catapult him to the forefront of the Republican primary—a surge that eventually forced Gov. Charlie Crist to bolt the party and run as an independent. Yet none of the movement's baggage seemed to drag Rubio down.

Things turned more complicated, however, when Crist declared his candidacy as an independent. Rubio suddenly lost a lot of free media attention, as the GOP primary was drained of its drama. And, as I wrote in a more recent piece on Crist, the battle turned from one aimed at base voters to one aimed at moderates, of both parties. That has made Rubio's position more difficult than ever. He needs to the keep the right wing of his party galvanized, but must also make a play for the median Florida voter to whom Crist speaks so effectively.

Rubio seems to be having a tough time striking the right balance. Some of the stances that made him popular with the Tea Partiers—his support for a flat tax, his questioning of whether climate change is man-made—are out of sync with mainstream Floridians. And a couple of unforeseen events have made things worse. In the wake of the BP oil spill, his steadfast support of offshore drilling became deeply problematic. And the Arizona immigration law elicited a confusing and contradictory string of pronouncements from him. As PolitiFact laid out in May, Rubio first said the measure would create a "police state." A little more than a week later, he said he would have voted for the measure, due to some tinkering by Arizona lawmakers (even though legal analysts considered the changes insubstantial). And now, we read in the Times that he doesn't think other states should go the same route. Follow all that?

There are certainly more contortions to come. And to be fair, no one has been contorting as dramatically as Crist, who has flip-flopped on past positions with gusto. Much of this stems from the challenges of a highly competitive three-man race (the third will be either Kendrick Meek or Jeff Greene, both Democrats). Rubio described his predicament succinctly to the Times: "I always knew that I'd have to run against two people who support the Barack Obama agenda," he said. "I just didn't know I'd have to run against them at the same time."