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Would Marco Rubio Really Be the "First Senator From the Tea Party"?

It's a scary thought, but that's exactly the headline New York Times Magazine chose for its massive piece on the race between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist.

As a portrait of Crist, it's masterful. The governor's obsequious way of talking about "the people" who elected him governor. His maddening talent for giving "exceedingly disciplined interviews -- also known as bland ones." And in a more subtle way, the article captures the wide political road that Crist has carved himself, allowing room to move left or right according to what's fashionable. Cruising with a popular trend: That's his passion. He comes off as a guy for whom the joy of politics has less to do with policy than it does with being elected, then adored.

So it's a cruel trick of fate that the latest trend in his party is against exactly the kind of accommodation he's built for. Suddenly, this glutton for affection is loathed.

What's less clear are the reasons that Rubio has become a golden boy for the Tea Party movement.

It's impossible to believe that Rubio is true believer in the principles that form the logical end of the Tea Party's ethos: that government is evil. On the campaign stump, he projects optimism, not the red-faced rage of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. And he's not game for the crowd-pleasing conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birth or religion or Communist masterplan.

The true genius of Rubio's campaign so far, I'd argue, is that he's managed to excite the Tea Party movement with very small gestures -- a forceful but boilerplate rebuke of Obama's stimulus package and health care plan, for instance. Then he lets those folks use their very active imaginations in ascribing philosophies to him that he may not actually have. More convincing is Rubio's appeal to the old-fashioned Republican set, like the National Review, who prize "ideological purity" and who have discovered in Rubio a candidate who has that, plus the charm to win over the formidable Tea Party vote.

Whether those two political entities can coexist for long is anyone's guess. Because for the Tea Partiers, the greatest thing about Rubio is still that he's not Crist. If he wins the Republican primary in August, he may find it hard to keep his honeymoon status with that temperamental constituency.

As for Crist, there's no time to glance past the primary. Yet his scenes in the article are almost all soft locations -- a Veteran's Day event in Pembroke Pines, for instance -- rather than the hard political turf where a surly group of conservative activists could put his toughness and resolve to the test.

"There is some supremely good chow here," Crist tells the Times reporter at a nursing home for veterans in South Florida, a scene that makes him look particularly forlorn.

"I love peas!" he boomed a few seconds later to a cafeteria worker.

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Thomas Francis

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