Rubio's Dilemma: How Much Tea Party Is Too Much?

Marco Rubio has become a darling of the tea-party set. With their help he has transformed his insurgent campaign, which once seemed like a fool's errand, into a serious conservative challenge to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a column arguing that the tea-party movement is "amateurish" but potentially a "major force," recently hailed Rubio as a leading contender "to become its de facto leader." The New York Times Magazine featured Rubio on its cover with a question: THE FIRST SENATOR FROM THE TEA PARTY? And tea-party favorites like Sen. Jim DeMint and former House majority leader Dick Armey have endorsed Rubio's populist candidacy. Following Republican Scott Brown's surge to victory in the Massachusetts special election for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, it's not unreasonable to think that Rubio, 38, could bump aside a major GOP-establishment candidate and ride the populist wave to victory in Florida.

So why does Rubio himself seem wary of the tea-party label? When CNBC's Larry Kudlow referred to him as a "tea-party senator" in a recent interview, Rubio responded, "Let me back you up on that for just a second. When you talk about the tea party, remember, I'm a Republican." His campaign wants to be clear that Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, is not trying to become the face of the movement. "Marco's never sought to be the candidate of one particular group of people or of one particular faction in the Republican Party," says Pat Shortridge, a senior adviser for the campaign. "He's running as who he is and what he believes in." Rubio declined to attend the first national tea-party convention last week in Nashville, where Sarah Palin was scheduled as the keynote speaker; his campaign says he had "a pretty full schedule." "Rubio may not be 100 percent of everything we want," says William Temple, a historical-reenactment actor who showed up in Nashville in full Revolutionary garb, "but he's what we've got for now, so we'll support him."

So far, Rubio has pulled off a neat political trick by capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the tea partiers while also managing to keep some distance. He has attended eight tea parties throughout Florida, hoping to harness the mixture of antigovernment anger and red-blooded patriotism that prevails at such gatherings. A Miami-born son of Cuban exiles, he cites the story of his family as a cautionary tale of government takeover. "My parents lost their country to a government!" he exclaimed at a rally in West Palm Beach last year. "I will not lose mine to a government!" Yet when asked directly about his ties to the tea party, Rubio strives to cast the anti-establishment movement as very mainstream. "The tea party is widely misunderstood by the media," he insists, choosing his words as carefully as any standard politician would. It's "an important part of a bigger movement in America united behind the idea that you don't have to get rid of everything that's right about America to fix what is wrong about our country." (Is there anyone who would not unite behind that idea?)

Lately, Rubio appears to have all the momentum in the race. A recent Rasmussen poll showed him beating Crist 49 percent to 37 percent. In the fourth quarter of last year he raised $1.75 million, nearly matching Crist's $2 million. Brown's recent victory in Massachusetts only seemed to reinforce the message that the electorate is hungry for outsiders, and Rubio has successfully attacked Crist as the personification of mushy moderation because of his support for President Obama's stimulus package, among other sins. By implication, Rubio is casting himself as the candidate of ideological purity. Cut through all the hoopla, however, and the reality is more complicated.

At a tea-party event Rubio attended in December, many in the crowd had only the vaguest notion of what he did during eight years in the Florida House. Yet some bits from his résumé are getting more scrutiny (with help from the Crist campaign). Rubio maintains that he has never voted for a tax increase, yet PolitiFact found that he "repeatedly voted to force school districts statewide to collect more property taxes." While House speaker in 2008, he also blocked a half-dozen bills that sought to crack down on illegal immigration, an issue that infuriates many conservatives. (He responds that the legislature had its hands full that year and that immigration is a federal matter.) Then there's Rubio's record on cap-and-trade. He has hammered Crist for supporting the program to reduce carbon emissions, but, as it turns out, Rubio declared in 2008 that such a regimen was "inevitable" and that Florida should prepare for it. He also ushered an energy bill through the Florida House that gave the Department of Environmental Protection the authority to create a cap-and-trade program. (He says any such plan would have required approval from the legislature, which would have blocked it—a claim many find nonsensical.)

Will Rubio be able to maintain the enthusiasm of the tea partiers as they get to know him better? Even a more ideologically pure candidate would be hard pressed to satisfy them as a whole. With no leaders, no official organization, and no established agenda, there's little that unites them, apart from a profound fear of big government and a seemingly universal adoration of Glenn Beck. The much-trumpeted Nashville confab of tea partiers, meant as a show of strength and purpose, devolved into an unseemly spectacle. Some groups pulled out amid complaints about the event's cost ($549 per ticket), alarm at Palin's speaking fee (rumored to be $100,000, though organizers wouldn't divulge the exact figure), and concern that the underlying agenda was to hijack grassroots energy for Republican benefit. "The tea party is really more about calling into question the leadership of both parties, not just one," says Jim Tomasik of the Mid-South Tea Party, which withdrew from the Nashville gathering.

The fractiousness has surfaced in Florida as well. Several tea-party activists just filed a lawsuit against Fred O'Neal—an Orlando lawyer who officially registered a Tea Party with the state—asking a judge to bar the use of that name. O'Neal says he's already recruiting candidates and has no use for "the wack jobs, the funny-hat people, the ones who see black helicopters hovering." To try to organize that heterogeneous mix into an electoral force in a closed GOP primary (scheduled for Aug. 24) could be hard. To harness those forces while also maintaining support from mainstream Republican voters could be harder still. It's a challenge tea-party candidates across the country face, particularly when taking on Republicans. "If Rubio goes too far down that road [courting the tea partiers]," says a Florida Republican consultant who declined to be named discussing the primary, "he'll anger disaffected GOP types" who aren't pleased with the party's veering to the right. This much can be said: if Rubio does succeed, he will have proved he's one heck of a politician.