Marco Rubio was running late. He was expected at the Lauderdale Beach Republican Club meeting by 6:30 p.m on Wednesday but was delayed by car trouble on his way from a Fort Myers event. "My plane is not in service yet,'' he quipped, in what could have been a dig at his U.S. Senate rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, who frequently flies on state planes and corporate jets.
The audience laughed, immediately charmed by the handsome 37-year-old former Speaker of the House, who went on to talk about how much he misses his four small children when he's on the road. While the crowd of about 50 people doesn't represent the Florida electorate, which widely approves of Crist, it was a fair sample of the more conservative voters who dominate the state's Republican-only primaries. Several said they were incensed when Crist campaigned with President Obama for his deficit-increasing spending plan.
"He's Democrat-lite!'' cried Dennis Ritchie, who was standing in the back.
"The tea-party people are starting to talk,'' said Laura Jean Dluzak, referring to the Boston Tea Party-inspired protests in Florida and around the country last month against government spending.
"Mr. Crist was not loyal to us,'' said Kathy Bishop, who snacked on chicken wings before Rubio arrived. "We supported him through thick and thin, the water got a little murky and now he's ready to bail.''
Rubio's pitch was classic Republican dogma: government is not the answer. He called for a federal balanced budget amendment, term limits, a strong national defense and tax reform -- he said he's a "fan'' of the fair tax and also likes the flat tax. He drew applause for sending his children to "faith-based'' schools and decrying government intervention in the healthcare system. "The more that we are like Democrats, the less need there is for a Republican party,'' he said.
In response to a question about immigration, Rubio dropped his previous pleas against harsh attacks on illegal workers. He said he would not have voted in favor of the legislation -- backed by Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez -- that would have allowed illegal workers to earn legal status, which he called "blanket legalization."
"Nothing is more disruptive to legal immigration than illegal immigration,'' he said. "We must secure our borders."
Rubio also assailed the Democratic administration's economic stimulus plan but hedged when pressed on how he would have balanced Florida's budget without that money and a cash infusion from a gambling deal with the Seminole tribe. "I'm not going to second guess our legislative leaders,'' he said. "I don't have the budget in front of me."
Surrounded by well-wishers after his speech, he said he plans to keep going to club meetings like this one and that he's not thinking about switching to the governor's race."I have a lot of these to do over the next 16 months,'' he said. "I don't think the odds are as long as you think."
More on the Rubio-Crist battle is here.