“He is an establishment figure, being in the [Florida] House for eight years and being speaker, so he doesn’t have that outsider street cred that people like [Delaware Republican Senate nominee] Christine O’Donnell or [Republican Senate nominee Joe] Miller out in Alaska have,” Mr. Smith said.
Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor, said that while mainstream Republican voters are solidly behind Mr. Rubio, he isn’t in lockstep with the party.
“He represents diversity, he represents the younger generation of Republicans and Cubans - the ethnic side of [the party],” Ms. MacManus said. “Being a Cuban from South Florida doesn’t make you an insider, no matter what.”
The unusual dynamics of the three-way race also have played to Mr. Rubio’s advantage.
Republican and Democratic voters once curious about Mr. Crist’s independent status now are shifting support back to their parties’ nominees. Also not helping the governor is a slumping state economy with an unemployment rate higher than the national average.
Mr. Crist also has been criticized for changing his positions on issues, including newfound support for gay rights.
Although the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill this year gave the governor a politically advantageous bully pulpit, the boost faded as quickly as the oil slicks did.
With the Meek campaign showing no signs of letting up its attack on the governor, Mr. Crist is forced to fight on two fronts.
“Meek has a sense of urgency, and rightfully so, to show that he can pull back some of that Democratic vote from Crist, to show that it really should be a race between Meek and Rubio,” Ms. MacManus said. “The real story is that Crist’s erosion has come from Meek, not from Rubio.”
Running as an independent also has denied Mr. Crist the opportunity of tapping into party resources - a crucial advantage during a general election cycle.
“I think some of his higher people have experience, but I’m not sure a lot of his everyday staff has a lot of experience,” she said. “You can’t run for a statewide office without some serious experience behind him.”
Despite Mr. Rubio’s recent campaign success, not all pollsters and analysts are ready to anoint him the winner.