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Spotlight on Florida Senate candidate Rubio at conservatives conference

When U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio delivers the keynote speech Thursday to the most prestigious annual gathering of conservatives in the country, there will be no question: He has arrived.

In less than one year, the Republican challenger to Gov. Charlie Crist has leaped from sleeper candidate to near-front runner in the polls. Rubio's marquee appearance in front of thousands of politicians, activists and opinion makers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington marks yet another milestone in one of the most astonishing turnarounds in Florida politics.

At the same time, Rubio's new status presents new challenges. How will he continue to pitch himself as a political outsider -- the quality that made him a star on the anti-establishment tea-party circuit -- even as he picks up congressional endorsements and raises money with the Washington elite? Will his political liabilities weigh more heavily under the intense scrutiny bestowed on leading candidates?

"We've watched Rubio over the last several months become more of a national candidate, and that certainly opens him up to a lot more scrutiny from the press, from voters," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "He's still fairly undefined."

At a time when being an incumbent can be a career killer, the former House speaker frequently adopts the posture of a fight-the-power revolutionary, referring to "our movement" and decrying the "establishment."

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