- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gov. Charles Crist and his conservative challenger Marco Rubio are now dead even in the Florida Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate that has turned into a major battleground between the party establishment and the insurgent “tea party” movement’s bid to take control of the Republican Party.

Mr. Rubio, the former state House speaker, had been trailing in the polls until recently, but a Rasmussen survey released Wednesday showed that his once-underdog campaign is drawing increased support from the Republican Party conservative base, while Mr. Crist has lost some support. The telephone survey of likely Republican primary voters now shows each of them drawing 43 percent of the vote, with 5 percent preferring another candidate and 9 percent undecided.

Just hours after the new Rasmussen poll numbers came out Wednesday, the conservative Club for Growth, which has endorsed Mr. Rubio, announced that it has raised more than $100,000 for his campaign “in a little over a month.”

The new polling numbers represent a dramatic change in the contest, since Mr. Crist was all but endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee as the party’s hand-picked candidate earlier this year, promising money and other political support to keep the open seat in the Republican column.

But a steady barrage of Rubio campaign attacks on the popular governor throughout the fall - charging that he has raised taxes and endorsed President Obama’s nearly $800 billion economic spending stimulus plan - threw the Crist campaign on the defensive and drove his support down from 53 percent in August to 49 percent in October.

“The fact that Crist has fallen below 50 percent in a primary against a lesser known opponent suggests potential vulnerability,” Rasmussen said at the time.

Mr. Rubio’s polls have since risen from 31 percent in August to 43 this week, and he is now viewed “very favorably” by 34 percent of likely primary voters, up from 18 percent who said that in August. Mr. Crist, on the other hand, has seen his “very favorable” ratings drop to 19 percent, Rasmussen said.

Tea party activists who packed congressional town-hall meetings in August to protest the Democrats’ health care plan and held a massive rally at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 12 have been major supporters of the Rubio campaign, and their role is seen by tea party coordinators as a major test of their movement’s effectiveness.

“While our campaign’s growing momentum and progress is encouraging, I recognize we still have a lot of work and a long road ahead as an underdog running against a sitting governor,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement Wednesday. “I also believe voters are starting to realize that there are vast differences between me and Charlie Crist on a number of important issues.”

The Crist campaign expressed doubts about the Rasmussen polling numbers and confidence that their candidate will be victorious in the end.

“Polls at this point in the race are as fluid as Marco Rubio’s policy positions on everything from cap and trade to tax increases. The only one that counts is on election day, and we’re confident it will ensure Charlie Crist is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate,” said Crist campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.

Real Clear Politics, the campaign Web site that tracks the candidates, showed Mr. Crist leading overall among the polls in the past few months, with a cumulative average lead of 8.4 percentage points over his rival, but some election handicappers Wednesday were reluctant to reach any conclusions about Rasmussen’s latest findings.

“I’d really like to see more polling before the race is declared a dead heat. Crist has only just started to engage Rubio and this will be the test of how deep and committed Rubio’s support really is,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.

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