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As for the original upstart, Rubio, he guessed right. By the winter of 2010, he had gone from pip-squeak to powerhouse, raising millions of dollars from energized conservatives while radiating the glow of a budding star. Crist's huge lead on the day of The Hug evaporated like a puddle on a Sarasota parking lot as Rubio gained heat, until finally, in April of this year, Crist announced that he would quit the GOP primary and run as an independent. Entering the final days of the campaign, Rubio had a commanding lead in the polls.
2. The Populist
Rubio sounded positively Reaganesque as he brought down the house earlier this year at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. At 39, he has some growing to do before he can wear the old man's shoes, but the family resemblance is there. His speech blended Democrat bashing and muscle flexing with a ringing dose of only-in-America uplift.
Something different is at work with Rand Paul, something more theoretical and astringent. Poised to win a Senate seat from Kentucky, Paul promotes a version of the small-government revival that owes little to Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches tales and much to Ayn Rand, the radical prophet of extreme individualism. "What is greed?" Paul has asked. "Greed is an excess of self-interest, but what drives capitalism? Self-interest and profit. They are good things." Paul isn't a spiritual son of Ronald Reagan, but he is an actual son of libertarian Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman and onetime Republican presidential candidate whose ties to the GOP have always been tenuous. Why? Because the Paul family philosophy disapproves of not just spending projects adored by Democrats but also federal interventions of all kinds, from a too muscular military to the Federal Reserve.
Making his first run for office, Rand Paul, a Bowling Green ophthalmologist, steamrolled the anointed candidate of the Kentucky GOP establishment. Rank-and-file Republicans were drawn to the purity of Paul's message: no new taxes, fewer federal agencies, dramatically less spending. He frowned on the invasion of Iraq, dreamed of privatizing Social Security and proposed to leave such divisive cultural issues as abortion and gay marriage to be decided state by state.
Like his dad, Paul, 47, is an ideological purist running in a year when a lot of voters are looking to draw bright, hard lines. Libertarians enjoy thinking outside the box; give them a choice between Column A and Column B and they'll tell you why both columns are a threat to freedom. Paul's Democratic opponent, Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway, tried to make hay of the fact that years ago, Paul joined an iconoclastic underground club while attending straitlaced Baylor University. But Conway missed the point: iconoclasm isn't a flaw for Republicans this year; it's a religion. In the party of neocons, paleocons, and social cons, libertarians are the contra-cons they don't buy anyone else's agenda. Theirs is a right-wing brand of politics that can be anti-war and pro-marijuana. This may help to illuminate Paul's awkward straddle on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He said he would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. but had certain reservations about the landmark law. Because while bigotry is bad, Paul doesn't think the federal government should limit the freedom of private citizens to be bigots. "Decisions concerning private property and associations should, in a free society, be unhindered," he has said.
Heading to Election Day, Paul appeared to have a solid lead over Democrat Conway though that was before a violent incident involving Paul volunteers. On Oct. 25, when a protester from the liberal group MoveOn.org approached the candidate, she was wrestled to the ground, and a Paul supporter pushed his foot down on her head as cameras rolled. Paul blamed lax crowd control, adding, "Any level of aggression or violence is deplorable."
If Dr. Paul goes to Washington, he will find the purity of his ideas severely tested by the popularity of the government programs he opposes. Voters may like the sound of his small-government speechifying, but they also like their Social Security and Medicare and Pell Grants and nearby jobs generators like Fort Campbell and Fort Knox. For every dollar the state sends to Washington in taxes, its delegation brings home at least $1.50. How will voters feel about a Senator who wants to turn off the money tap?
3. The Billionaire
As CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman helped create the online-auction economy and some 15,000 jobs in the bargain, becoming a billionaire in the process. She seemed like the perfect embodiment of the Republican alternative to Big Government the free-market entrepreneur. But while the upstart Rubio and the outsider Paul have prospered this election season, Whitman has struggled. Despite spending more than $100 million of her own money on the campaign, Whitman is heading to Nov. 2 trailing the opposition in her case, the eternal California Democrat Jerry Brown. Whitman's story, unlike Rubio's or Paul's, points to the limits of the GOP's message. Even if she pulls off an upset, the uphill nature of her campaign suggests that her timing was off. You would expect that California voters would be hungry for something new, given the depth of their economic woes and the paralysis of the state's government. Yet Brown, elected statewide four times over 40 years, is the opposite of new.