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Analysis: Florida's Rubio, an outsider, avoids establishment label

By Mark Preston, CNN Political Editor
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Rubio: 'I don't embrace Washington'
  • Marco Rubio, a Republican, is running in the Senate race in Florida
  • Gov. Charlie Crist recently dropped out of the GOP primary
  • Rubio says he's not embracing the way Washington works
  • He is now viewed as a key voice in the next generation of conservative leaders

Editor's note: CNN Political Editor Mark Preston is an award-winning journalist who has covered government and politics for more than a dozen years, including six as a newspaper reporter on Capitol Hill. He joined CNN in 2005. Follow Preston on Twitter: @prestoncnn

Washington (CNN) -- Marco Rubio said Tuesday he would welcome Republican leaders to Florida to campaign on his behalf, but emphasized that he is not embracing the ways of Washington even though he is now the GOP establishment's favorite son.

"I'm more than excited to have people buy into our agenda. You know we don't buy into theirs, and I'm here today to get some help from some folks who want to be helpful to our campaign," Rubio said shortly after landing in the nation's capital, where he will spend the day holding meetings and attending several finance events.

"But ultimately, although Washington and some in Washington may embrace me, I don't embrace Washington," he said. "And I certainly think that one of the reasons I'm running for U.S. Senate is -- and I ran when I was 30 points down -- and all of the interest groups and all of the leadership here lined up behind Charlie Crist -- is that I believe what's coming out of the city is broken."

A former speaker of the Florida House, Rubio is no longer 30 points down and hasn't been for a while. His once-long shot candidacy for the Senate is no longer unrealistic and he is now the favorite to win the Senate seat in November.

This time last year, everyone thought it would be Crist, the popular Florida governor, who would retain the seat for the GOP. That is until Rubio pushed him out of the primary and the Republican Party.

Over the past year, the former Florida House speaker began rising in the polls as Crist began to drop, and then drop a little further and still further until Crist decided to drop out of the Republican primary entirely to launch an independent bid for Senate.

To be fair, Crist left on his own accord, but he would still be a Republican, and likely still the front-runner, if Rubio hadn't challenged him for the GOP nomination.

A 38-year-old who defied the party establishment, Rubio is now viewed as a key voice in the next generation of conservative leaders.

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Is Rubio disappointed that he won't be able to face off against Crist in the August primary?

"Yeah, I was looking forward to having a spirited Republican primary where we could talk about the future of the Republican Party and ultimately its role in the future of America," Rubio said. "That's not going to happen. Now we're going to have a three-way race, but Gov. Crist will be there as a nonparty affiliate. I'll be there hopefully as a Republican, there'll be a Democratic candidate, and I hope it will be a high-minded issues campaign."

High-minded as it might be on some days in the coming months, it is also expected to get nasty as Rubio, Crist and Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, fight for the seat once held by Sen. Mel Martinez and now being kept warm by Crist ally George LeMieux.

There is also that ongoing investigation into the freewheeling spending habits of the Republican Party of Florida's former leadership, which has ensnared both Crist and Rubio. One of the examples of this opulent spending was a portrait commissioned of Crist. The new Florida GOP chairman, state Sen. John Thrasher, is selling the painting on eBay to raise money.

"I didn't even know that it was for sale," Rubio said when asked (jokingly) if he was going to buy it. "They put it on sale?"

He added, "Well good luck to them, maybe raising some money off that."

Raising money will be easier for Rubio now that he is no longer viewed as the outsider, the spoiler candidate. Once Crist abandoned the GOP primary, Republican Senate leaders asked for their contributions back. That money will now be re-directed to Rubio. The GOP fundraising spigot is now turned on full blast for the Republican establishment's new favorite.

"I don't want anyone to underestimate what we're facing: an incumbent governor with a lot of money and a lot of name recognition," Rubio said. "I'm running against a sitting congressman, who sits on pretty powerful committees up here and can raise a lot of money and is a pretty effective politician. So we've got our hands full and the state's still pretty evenly divided in terms of partisanship and registration."

With a primary out of the way, Rubio is looking toward November, and with that comes some change in his campaign strategy.

"My message is the same, and I believe my message is what most would describe as conservative, no doubt about it," he said. "But I think it's what the majority of Americans believe: that our tax code is broken and needs to be reformed, that our spending is out of control, that our debt that we're leaving our children is immoral and bad for America's future.

"On the other hand, I think how you reach people changes because you have a broader audience. We now no longer are campaigning to a Republican primary electorate, we're campaigning in front of the entire state. Luckily, we'll have more time and God willing more money to be able to communicate the same message."

While Rubio's age is often cited, it is his Cuban heritage that could help make him a nationally known name. Rubio could play an important role in trying to build a bridge between Hispanic voters and Republicans -- a relationship that is tenuous, at best, exacerbated by the GOP's efforts against illegal immigration.

Rubio said he doesn't feel the pressure of being that spokesman, but he does have an opinion on how illegal immigration is being talked about by his party.

"I think the Republican Party should be the pro-legal immigration party, not the anti-illegal immigration party," he said. "I think that's what we are, and I think that's what needs to be communicated. I think we should have a vibrant, healthy legal immigration process in America, but we also can't be the only country in the world that doesn't enforce its immigration laws.

"Being able to enforce, to protect your borders and enforce immigration laws is a key component of your sovereignty, so just because you're for an orderly, organized, positive immigration system, doesn't mean you're anti-immigrant or anti-immigration. It's important that we communicate that and we communicate that effectively, because ultimately, the system we have in place right now in America is broken. It's not good for America; it's not good for the immigrant."

And it is not good for Rubio, who is going to need every vote -- as will Crist and Meek -- to pull out a win in this three-way race in November.