Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio (far right) with national Republican star Mitt Romney (to his right) (Pic via TwitPic)

A visit from former Vice President Al Gore on behalf of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek in Tampa last Thursday dominated the local news cycle for a while, but it didn’t last long.

The next day Republic candidate for U.S. Senate Marco Rubio showed up just north of Tampa at a Pasco County restaurant with his own national political star, Mitt Romney, getting the attention of both national and Tampa Bay area media. Then over the weekend, independent Gov. Charlie Crist came to town seeking union votes in the same U.S. Postal Service hall where Gore stumped for Meek just days earlier.

It all amounted to the familiar campaign strategy that any successful candidate in a statewide race in Florida has to push for votes from Tampa Bay to Orlando, known as the I-4 corridor.

“So the saying goes, ‘As I-4 goes, so goes the state,’” says Tampa Bay political analyst Chris Ingram, president of the political consulting firm 411 Communications.

Winning the I-4 corridor is crucial to any campaign, while stumping in the Tampa Bay area is key because it is home to Florida’s largest contiguous media market, according to Ingram.

“A lot of people think places like Broward have the largest, but they are broken up into several different markets,” Ingram says.

Last Friday, Rubio drew a crowd of hundreds to the small restaurant north of Tampa where it was standing room only amid a throng of media.

Rubio appeared with Romney, who failed to win the Republican Party’s nomination in the 2008 election but still generates interest from both the public and the media. Romney’s appearance may also signal a run for president in 2012, according to Ingram.

“All signs point to him running for president,” Ingram says.

Romney blasted the Obama Administration and a “liberal” agenda in Washington he said is harming American jobs and ingenuity, which Rubio echoed in his speech.

“The liberals in Washington are trying to smother that,” Romney told the crowd to huge cheers.

After the short rally, Rubio and Romney walked out the back door of the eatery to another crowd made up of Republican voters, many wearing tea party shirts. Rubio signed autographs and shook hands.

“You’re a rock star!” one man shouted.

“No, rock stars get to trash their hotel rooms,” Rubio responded with a grin.

But the exchange could be a barometer of where Rubio’s campaign stands. He holds a double-digit lead over both Crist and Meek, and has what appears to be solid Republican support.

Rubio is taking advantage of a revved up conservative base and the tea party movement, while Crist has set his sights on pulling in moderate Democrat and independent voters, which will likely split the vote in Rubio’s favor, according to Ingram.

“He can squeeze in with 36, 37 percent of vote,” Ingram says of Rubio. “While Charlie is going to do more damage to Meek than Rubio. You are not going to see many hardcore Republicans voting for Charlie Crist.”

Rubio’s only downfall could come amid accusations that he used Republican funds for personal items, but so far that has not happened, according to Ingram.

“It could be possible conservatives might say they can’t vote for someone who can’t keep their own fiscal house clean,” says Ingram. “But most likely the sentiment among many may be: ‘I would rather vote for a dirty Republican than an honest Democrat.’”

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