Charlie’s hug

Time to pay the piper.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist probably wasn’t worried that literally embracing President Barack Obama back in February and strongly supporting the $787 billion federal stimulus package would hurt his U.S. Senate campaign.

Sure, the hardcore party base wasn’t happy, but the appearance was an opportunity to win over Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans who voted for Obama. The president’s approval ratings were high, and any Republican thinking about running for an open seat in 2010 stopped thinking about it when Crist signaled interest.

All except former House Speaker Marco Rubio. Political insiders said it wasn’t logical to challenge an incumbent governor who had high approval ratings and could raise gobs of money. However, Rubio said it didn’t make sense for the highest-profile Republican in Florida to embrace a Democratic president and a plan that would raise the federal deficit.

Now Rubio is gaining momentum as he reminds Republican voters of Crist’s hug. And the same political insiders who downplayed Rubio are starting to think the unthinkable: Crist’s campaign might be threatened by another Republican.

“I just knew that if we were true to ourselves and what we stand for, and we went out and told enough people about it, that we would begin to make progress and that’s what’s happening,” Rubio said.