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Tea Party’s Star Needs Cheap Florida Barber: Margaret Carlson

It’s the kind of headline that can ruin your day, maybe your life.

On Wednesday, Florida newspapers trumpeted the news that the Internal Revenue Service is looking into the expenses of the star of the Sunshine State’s political firmament, Marco Rubio. He is the giant-slayer who took on a sitting governor with a 70 percent favorability rating and raced 30 points ahead of him in a fight to be the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.

The investigation into whether Rubio used a credit card issued by the state GOP for personal expenses -- an offshoot of a larger investigation by the IRS, FBI and U.S. attorney’s office into the use of party-issued American Express cards, according to the newspaper reports -- offers, at the very least, a window into a lifestyle.

A public figure can be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing or civil penalties and still be mortally embarrassed when a bill from, say, Victoria’s Secret leaks out. Rubio’s beleaguered opponent, Governor Charlie Crist, was already making fun of the austere Rubio for spending $133 on a haircut, one of the credit-card line items divulged in February. Think the public doesn’t care about expensive haircuts? Ask John Edwards.

With the investigation hitting the state’s front pages, Crist, left for dead, may get a second wind.

Economy First

Once one of the country’s most popular governors, today Crist is barely registering a fight against his upstart challenger from the right, Rubio, a 38-year-old Cuban-American who could have been constructed from leftover signs from a Tea Party rally. A don’t-tread-on-me fiscal conservative who favors small government, big-family values and faith -- but who puts spending restraint before all -- Rubio is running such a perfect outsider campaign that you could easily forget he once was speaker of the Florida House.

He’s now the avatar of the post-Bush-spending-spree Republican -- anti-spending, anti-Obama and anti-government, with special derision reserved for the health-care bill. He’s still benefiting from the picture of Obama man-hugging Crist as the governor welcomed stimulus funds from Washington.

Before the investigation into Rubio’s expenses, Crist’s prospects were bleak to non-existent. He cut a lonely figure, everyday looking the loser, yet everyday having to get up and go out again begging people to like him.

The bellwether indicator that he was toast came when his one-time fellow governor and one-time friend, Mitt Romney, who’s never taken a political risk in his life, endorsed Rubio, anointing Crist a loser.

Independent Veto

When Crist vetoed an education bill that would have instituted a merit-pay system for teachers, the state’s favorite parlor game -- whether he’d run as an independent -- went viral.

He surely doesn’t want to leave his party, since that entails the loss of structure, sense of belonging and fund- raising help. But the short answer is that he would have bolted, encouraged by a poll showing he’d be highly competitive in a three-way race against Rubio and the likely Democratic nominee, U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek.

Now, with his party’s use of credit cards under investigation, Crist might not have to give up his political home of almost three decades to survive.

Politics, like the Final Four, is a zero-sum game that can change in an instant. You don’t have to do well if your opponent blunders badly enough.

While Crist could get snagged by the same inquiry -- his hand-picked former party chair, Jim Greer, is also under scrutiny -- Rubio and his squeaky-clean image stands to be hurt more.

Family Christmas

Rubio’s Christmas video was a case in point. Rivaling anything Hallmark produces, it had him introducing his perfect blonde wife and four perfect children, one of whom gave an adorable yawn just before the strains of “Silent Night” reached “sleep in heavenly peace.”

By contrast to this lovely tableau, Crist, after a marriage in his early 20s that lasted less than a year, lived in a one-bedroom rental, practiced law with his brother-in-law and was known for being emotionally remote, if friendly. He remarried in 2008 and has no children. For Crist’s 2008 speech to the Republican Governors Association in Miami, his prepared text had notations for when he should smile or seem sad.

Rubio says that even if he used his Republican Party credit card for personal expenses, he repaid them. Still, most people privileged to have a credit card through work know to pull out the personal one for personal things. For Rubio’s lapse on that point, Crist may yet get to run as the Republican he is.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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