- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

Marco Rubio downplays polls showing him surging ahead of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the Republican Senate primary.

But dismissing his front-runner status likely will become more difficult after this week, because he posted impressive fundraising totals and won a prominent GOP endorsement amid speculation that Mr. Crist may leave the party.

Mr. Rubio, a former Florida House speaker with strong conservative support, said he raised more than $3.6 million in the first quarter of 2010, with most of the money designated for the primary race that ends in August.

“I continue to be humbled and energized by the outpouring of support,” he said. “Above all, we’re encouraged by the strength of our limited-government message and its ability to rally people around our cause.”

Mr. Crist has yet to release his first-quarter numbers. He likely holds a substantial overall funding advantage over Mr. Rubio considering he had $7.5 million at the end of 2009 compared with Mr. Rubio’s $2 million.

However, Mr. Crist’s fundraising numbers consistently have fallen over the three previous quarters - $4.4 million, $2.5 million, then $2.1 million.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Rubio strategist Alex Burgos, who did not address the question of whether the campaign will change to address Mr. Rubio’s apparent front-runner position. Mr. Burgos instead focused on Mr. Rubio’s steady ride to the top.

“We’ve stuck to the message,” he said, adding that dozens of straw polls - including ones early in the race and in Mr. Crist’s home county of Pinellas - showed the relatively unknown Mr. Rubio could win the Senate seat.

A new Rasmussen Reports statewide telephone survey of likely Republican Primary voters taken last month shows Mr. Rubio with a 56 percent to 34 percent lead over Mr. Crist. In December, the two candidates were tied.

Rasmussen shows that both Mr. Rubio, 38, and Mr. Crist, 53, with double-digit leads over presumptive Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek, 43.

The poll numbers and Mr. Rubio’s fundraising figures - described by some observers as “jaw-dropping” and a “bombshell” - have resulted in speculations that Mr. Crist will quit the primary race and run as an independent in the November general election.

Mr. Crist recently showed signs of breaking from Republicans by vetoing an election bill and hinting that he might veto a teacher-tenure bill.

Crist campaign manager Eric Eikenberg adamantly denies such a break with the GOP.

“To put these rumors to rest once and for all, as we have said countless times before, Gov. Crist is running for the United States Senate as a Republican,” he said. “[Crist] will not run as an independent or as a no-party affiliation.”

On Monday, Mr. Rubio received the endorsement of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“We need a senator who understand how to stand up for the individual, low taxes and less government spending,” Mr. Giuliani said. “And Marco is the only candidate in this race who has a record of doing that.”

Mr. Giuliani did not receive Mr. Crist’s endorsement when he campaigned to be the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Mr. Crist endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain.

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