Florida Senate candidate Rubio is becoming a tea party star

So many tea parties, so little time.

Up-and-coming U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio has become the hottest ticket on Florida's tea-party circuit. The movement of disaffected, disillusioned and generally fed-up conservative voters has helped fuel his increasingly competitive campaign against the more moderate Gov. Charlie Crist.

Here's the problem: Rubio, the Republican former leader of the Florida House, could be sidelined as a fringe candidate if he is too closely associated with the loosely organized, quirky tea party crowd.

When a recent New York Times headline asked: "The first senator from the tea party?" Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos quipped: "At least they put a question mark."

The impact of tea party voters on the 2010 election is as unpredictable as the political climate in the nation's largest swing state.

That uncertainty keeps Rubio straddling two worlds: the traditional Republican establishment and the unconventional grass-roots movement.

"The thing that protects candidates from being perceived as extreme and outside the mainstream is whether they are optimists, and Marco is very optimistic about America," said national Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "What helps Rubio transcend is his passion against what Washington is doing but also the optimism that we can do better."

Rubio has been to at least seven tea party demonstrations in Florida and is slated to attend his eighth rally Saturday in Inverness.

But he is skipping the movement's first national convention headlined by former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin next month, even though the Nashville event would offer opportunities for publicity and fundraising.

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