Senate hopeful Marco Rubio, the new darling of the tea-party movement, finds himself caught up in a federal investigation into alleged credit-card abuses by top Florida Republicans.
Nonetheless, he's racking up endorsements and holding a double-digit lead in polls over Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.
Rubio won the backing Thursday of former Vice President Dick Cheney, a day after Rubio repaid Florida's Republican Party $2,417 for double-billed flights. It came the same week it was disclosed that the IRS was investigating Rubio's use of Republican Party credit cards for personal use.
Rubio blamed the expense on an accounting error he discovered after the first of several stories on the investigation appeared a few weeks ago in The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times.
Rubio, 39, acknowledged that he made personal purchases on his party-issued credit card but said he paid those bills out of his own pocket. Among the expenditures that have been called into question: a $134 charge at a men's salon in Miami; hotel rooms for a family get-together; and purchases at a wine store.
In all, 27 people had party credit cards.
Trailing in the polls, Crist is considering abandoning the Republican Party and running as an independent. It was Crist who asked federal prosecutors recently to investigate spending at the state GOP.
Crist, 54, has tried to make an issue of Rubio's use of his party credit card, running negative television ads and putting out press releases. The ads, however, did nothing to boost Crist's poll numbers and have since been taken down.
The issue doesn't seem to make any difference to key Republicans. Cheney's endorsement came just a few days after one from Mitt Romney, a possible 2012 presidential candidate.
"I just don't think the financial stuff has penetrated yet. Whether it does or not will depend on whether any actual charges come out of it," said Peter Brown, assistant polling director for Quinnipiac University.
Many Republicans have abandoned Crist as too moderate. They were upset that he hugged President Barack Obama and embraced his $787 billion federal stimulus package, too. More recently, party leaders got angry when he vetoed a bill that would have tied teacher raises to students' test scores.
It is a startling reversal of fortune for the two rivals. Just last year, Rubio, the former Florida House speaker, was 46 percentage points behind Crist in a Quinnipiac poll — the same survey that last week showed Rubio with a commanding 23-point lead. Rubio took in $3.6 million in the last quarter, compared with $1.1 million for Crist.
Most voters haven't had time to sort out all the details of the party spending and who should be blamed, said Republican political scientist Darryl Paulson, a retired University of South Florida professor. Still, the issue has the potential to hurt Rubio, he said.
"That's probably fine at this point in time, but he still has questions to answer and the first one for me is why in the world would he put personal expenses on his party credit card to begin with?" Paulson said.
Crist has until April 30 to decide whether to run as an independent; the primary is in August.
In endorsing Rubio, Cheney called him someone who could be trusted "to stand up to the Obama agenda that threatens our freedom, and promote clear conservative alternatives."
Crist is regarded as so toxic that the state GOP's lawyer issued a memo Thursday warning that any county or state party executive board member who supports an independent run by Crist in any way will be removed.
Cheney all but called him a turncoat: "Charlie Crist has shown time and again that he cannot be trusted in Washington to take on the Obama agenda because on issue after issue he actually supports that agenda. Lately it seems Charlie Crist cannot be trusted even to remain a Republican."
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