Arrogant, simplistic – and likely to win big in Florida

The US has God-given status, says Marco Rubio, favourite to take the state's senate seat, but his claims make the old guard nervous and ruffle Democrats.
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The Independent US

He has just recorded a debate with his rivals for Florida's open US Senate seat at the Fox station in Tampa and is now outside a squat brick building in nearby Bradenton. A local Republican congressman is making the introductions when a bouffant-blond retiree thrusts a photo frame under his nose. Could he sign?

It is all in a day's work for Marco Rubio, a 39-year-old son of Cuban immigrants who may just be the male equivalent of Sarah Palin. With help from the Tea Party and from his mentor, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, he is the man to beat in this race. He is being talked of as future presidential material, too.

Toni Parsons, the retiree, closer to her 80th birthday than she would like, wants Mr Rubio to autograph some clippings she intends to put in the frame to replace what's in there now: old snapshots of her alongside Charlie Crist, the current Governor who, until about a year ago, thought running for the US Senate would be a breeze. That was before conservative America caught fire. "I helped Charlie walk the walk to get him all the way up there," explains Ms Parsons, a longtime local party activist, when the short Rubio rally is over. In fact, she says, she bought him to this building, home of the Manatee County Republican Party, for an event 20 years ago. "Then he betrayed us."

For a glimpse of the conservative surge gripping America as it prepares next month to elect all members of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, come here to the Sunshine State. A one-time party darling, Mr Crist left the fold in April to become an independent after seeing that party activists were going to deprive him of the nominationin favour of Mr Rubio. It was a gamble he may be losing: polls show Mr Crist and the Democrat, Kendrick Meek, trailing Mr Rubio.

Many in the small crowd in the car-park have joined the Tea Party. Among them is Heather Goldin, 43, who home-schools her three children and says she abandoned Mr Crist when he vetoed a state bill that would have obliged women seeking abortions to view an ultrasound of the foetus first. "A lot of us worked hard for that bill and that was just wrong," she insists.

Mr Rubio identifies himself first as a Republican. (Historical events that have most informed his political philosophy, he tells a reporter, include the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the collapse of the British empire.) But there is little in his brief stump speech that the Tea Party would find fault with: shrink government and lower taxes. And, of course, excoriate President Barack Obama.

During a meteoric rise in Florida – he became speaker of the state legislature in 2005 when he was just 34 – he steered an increasingly conservative course. He is on the record supporting the teaching of creationism in schools and querying the evidence that humankind is responsible for global warming.

He is also in the front ranks of America's "exceptionalist" revival, which holds that the United States is a better country than any other on the globe. It is this God-given status, Mr Rubio tells the Bradenton supporters, that the President is putting at risk with healthcare reform and profligate federal spending. "This is not just a contest between a Democrat, a Republican and an opportunist," Mr Rubio declares, indulging in a well-rehearsed jab at the Governor. "This is also about our identity as a nation and as a people. We are citizens of the greatest nation in the history of mankind. That is not a theory. That is a fact."

Like most Republicans on the stump in these final two weeks before the elections, which are likely to result in the shackling of President Obama in the second half of his first term, Mr Rubio lashes out most forcefully at healthcare reform. To loud whistles and whoops, he vows to vote to repeal it. "This is an election that will decide the future of this country," he goes on, "and whether our children will inherit the greatest country in the world or whether, for the first time in our history, they will inherit a country that has been diminished."

If old-guard Republicans are wary of candidates like Mr Rubio, Florida has presented the Democrats with a stickier problem. Some last week began to switch from their official nominee in favour of Mr Crist. There has even been talk of Mr Meek dropping out to unify the anti-Rubio forces.

"The dilemma is this," said Burt Aaronson, Palm Beach County Commissioner and a leading Democrat. "The boat is sinking. We have a chance to get into a lifeboat . . . I think this is all about the Democrats not having Marco Rubio as our senator."

By breakfast time yesterday, the Rubio campaign bus had drawn up in Sarasota on the Gulf Coast. With Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, at his side, the candidate is back on the theme of pre-eminence and decline (and empire). "This is the greatest society there ever was. I wouldn't choose to be an Englishman during the British empire. I would choose to be an American during the 21st century, because we have freedom, because in America we are the freest of all people."

So what is it with the empire? It fell, he says, "because decisions that were needed were never made." Such as what? Cutting the British national debt? Discrediting Darwin? But the bright Rubio smile is already blurring as aides push him on his way.