Stimulus Day Is A Big Day For Rubio, Too

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President Obama spoke this morning about the one-year anniversary of his $787 stimulus bill, but that massive package of spending and tax cuts also had its hand in launching a Senate campaign in Florida that would come to embody the present conservative movement.

Little did anyone know it at the time, but the stimulus marked the ascension of Marco Rubio, the hottest conservative candidate in the land.

Much of the previously-little-known former state House speaker's campaign against Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has focused on Crist's support of the stimulus. Rubio has hit the governor repeatedly for it since announcing his candidacy. In November, Rubio launched the website CharlieandObama.com, dedicated entirely to tying Crist to Obama for his backing of the $787 billion package--with a now-infamous photo of Crist physically embracing Obama displayed prominently.

Crist, a centrist and one of the heaviest hitters in Florida politics--who was once on the radar as a potential VP pick for John McCain--campaigned for the stimulus with President Obama when the newly sworn-in, massively popular president came to Florida to stump for it.

At that time, GOP governors were grappling with how to handle the stimulus, and it presented a unique problem, placing GOP governors at the intersection of fiscally conservative principles and state interest: how could the accept the money if they opposed the bill? How could they reject it if they cared about helping their states?

Governors like Sarah Palin and South Carolina's Mark Sanford moved to oppose some of the money, before finally accepting it; Crist went the other route, embracing the influx of funds to Florida--which, along with California, has led the nation in foreclosure rates throughout the economic crisis--as the bill seemed destined to pass through Congress, in some form or another.

Despite the money that it brought to Florida, that move proved to be an easy and effective weapon for Rubio--who wasn't yet running for Senate--to claw his way into a competitive race with the well-known Crist. Since then, Rubio steadily hammered Crist on the stimulus, and, despite no one knowing who he was and seemingly having no chance in polls at the start of the primary race, he's become the darling candidate not just of conservatives in Florida, but of activists and prominent conservative interest groups nationwide.

Improbably, Rubio now leads the race, and he may lead it big: since late January, the most recent polling has shown Rubio ahead by anywhere from three to 14 percentage points.

Crist's support for the stimulus was the beginning of Florida conservatives' discontent with their centrist governor, opening a door for Rubio, according to South Florida Tea Party Chairman Everett Wilkinson.

 "It was the tipping point for most conservatives, who said enough is enough," Wilkinson said. "I think Rubio came along at the right time and said, 'I'm for smaller government, I'm for balancing the budget.'"

In a 10-day blitz leading up to the stimulus anniversary, Rubio launched a "stimulus money bomb" fundraising effort that netted over $860,000 for his campaign, with the help of another "money bomb" launched by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) on Rubio's behalf, his campaign said.

Last Wednesday, Rubio held a rally to commemorate the anniversary of the Florida rally where Crist appeared with Obama, and today Rubio appeared on Fox News to talk about the stimulus and his opponent's support for it.

"That's exactly why we're ahead in the polls," Rubio said. Politicians "at the highest levels are taking our country in a direction we don't agree with."

"[Crist] used his position as governor to twist the arms of our congressional delegation, when Republicans in Washington were looking...to offer an alternative [to the stimulus]," Rubio asserted, calling the stimulus a "fundamental choice before the Congress and the American people last February" not just on spending, but on an overarching vision of government.

"Charlie Crist and Barack Obama were on the wrong side of that decision."

On Thursday, Rubio's conservative apotheosis will be complete: he'll deliver the opening address at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the yearly gathering of conservative activists, interest groups and politicians in Washington, DC.

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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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