The Associated Press reports:
WASHINGTON — Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio has risen from obscurity to become a darling of conservative Republicans nationally, exciting a crowd Thursday during his most important speech yet in his effort to defeat Gov. Charlie Crist.Learn more about CPAC here.
Rubio received several standing ovations from more than 3,000 people gathered for the American Conservative Union Foundation's Conservative Political Action Conference as he criticized the country's Democratic leadership and called for more policies that benefit free enterprise.
His warm reception is the culmination of his rise since last summer — when he had little money and drove himself to small Republican gatherings around Florida amid pressure from the party establishment to give up on his Senate hopes. By contrast, Crist was raising nearly $13 for every $1 Rubio raised, had an enormous lead in the polls and was quickly endorsed by top Washington Republicans.
It's a different story now. On Thursday, Rubio was the keynote speaker at the what's considered the most important gathering of conservative activists in the country. People booed when Crist's name was mentioned. Crist was not at the conference.
The 2010 elections will be a referendum on "the very identity of our nation," and the politics of old won't work, Rubio said.
"A long list of early establishment endorsements will not spare you a primary, clever one-line slogans are not going to spare you the need to discuss policy issues in detail, and old, tired political attacks that worked once in the past aren't going to get you elected," Rubio said.
The month before they entered the race, a Quinnipiac poll showed 54 percent of Republican voters supported Crist compared with 8 percent for Rubio. Last month, a Quinnipiac poll showed 47 percent supported Rubio, while 44 percent supported Crist.
Rubio eliminated the lead with a message based on sticking to core Republican principles. He has also criticized Crist's support of the $787 billion federal stimulus package before Congress passed it. The image of Crist hugging Obama at a rally to promote the plan nearly every Washington Republican fought has been used repeatedly in the campaign.
While he didn't mention Crist by name, he distinguished himself from the governor who is known for working with Democrats.
"What people want are leaders who come here to Washington, D.C., and stand up to the big government agenda and not be coopted by it," Rubio said. "If the goal is not to fix America, but to change America, then they want leaders who are going to come up here and fight it every step of the way."