DeMint Backs Rubio, Florida Becomes A Battleground

Conservative state Rep. Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate campaign in Florida has provided a rallying cry for conservatives, sparked a debate about the future of the GOP and the place of moderates, and pitted National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (TX) against some of those passionate conservatives. Today, a prominent Senate conservative jumped on board with Rubio: Sen. Jim DeMint (SC).

DeMint held a press conference with Rubio in Washington, DC today and wrote, in an email to Rubio's supporters:

For months now, Republicans have been looking around, asking everyone they meet who our next leaders will be. And somehow, inexplicably, many of us have grown blind to the diamonds all around us. There are already many young, conservative leaders ready to fight for freedom in Washington and in state capitals all around the country. But we'll never find them if we only look for well-known politicians...

Rubio trails Gov. Charlie Crist (R) by vast margins in recent polling--54-23 according to a June 10 Quinnipiac survey. (Some of that deficit probably has to do with name recognition--Crist has a big advantage in that department.)

But DeMint's endorsement--and the language he used in offering it--continues the vaulting of Rubio's candidacy to a higher significance: a national discussion about the GOP's direction. Now, two prominent and influential GOP senators are lined up on opposite sides of the primary. They're just two senators, so it would be easy to overstate the signifcance. But it would appear Florida is not just a primary battleground for Rubio and Crist, but an ideological one for national GOP figures like DeMint and Cornyn--who offered competing theories for what should be prized in a GOP candidate--as well as the conservative bloggers who got excited about Rubio and angry at Cornyn in the first place.

UPDATE/NOTE: A senior Republican aide emails me to point out that this isn't a Cornyn/DeMint issue, and that the rest of the GOP leadership, as well retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), is behind Crist. That's a good point--this isn't a fight between Cornyn and DeMint.

Cornyn has presented a thoroughly articulated explanation for his backing of Crist in a post at RedState--a vision that DeMint has contradicted--and while it may be useful to think of Cornyn's articulation as emblematic of the reasons for backing Crist as contrasted with DeMint's statement today, it's perhaps more interesting on the level of ideas than on the level of direct political competition.

Cornyn isn't the only one in his camp (he's not even the highest ranking Republican in his camp) and DeMint hasn't specifically taken aim at Cornyn, even if he has taken aim at Cornyn's logic. In other words, the two senators are perhaps more significant in terms of what their statements signify. If there's a fight in this, it's probably more accurate to say it's between DeMint and Cornyn + the Senate GOP Leadership, rather than DeMint and Cornyn.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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