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The best candidate of 2010

Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio is the Fix's best candidate of 2010. AP Photo

Earlier this week, we named Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) the winner of the Fix's best campaign of 2010 award.

Today, we pick the best candidate of the year.

But, before we get to the winner -- although you may have figured it out from the picture above -- it's important to delineate between best campaign and best candidate.

Reid was, at best, a mediocre candidate. In the biggest moment of the race -- a late October debate -- Reid struggled badly. But, thanks to an absolutely brilliant negative campaign against former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, Reid won. Great campaign, so-so candidate.

For the best candidate award then, we searched for the person with the most natural gifts who ran over the last two years. Typically, great candidates win -- but not always. (One of our runners-up was, well, a runner-up in his race.)

Our pick for the best candidate of the 2010 election is Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R).

Rubio began the cycle as an also-ran in the race against popular Gov. Charlie Crist (R, at that moment) for the state's open Senate seat.

In the first three months that Rubio and Crist went head to head in fundraising, Crist raked in $4.3 million while Rubio raised just $340,000. That disparity immediately led to calls for Rubio to drop from the race and run for some, heck, any, other office.

But, like all great candidates, Rubio saw a path to victory that almost no one else could grasp. (The best example of seeing what others didn't in modern political memory is Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential primary process.)

By the fall of 2009, the tide had begun to turn. Rubio's relentlessness on the stump and communication abilities had attracted the attention of the national conservative establishment -- and the primary began to be framed as a fight for the soul of the Republican party. (Rubio made the cover of National Review magazine in late August 2009 with the headline "Yes, He Can!"

By early 2010, Rubio had become a national figure. He delivered a stirring keynote speech at the CPAC gathering in February -- showcasing his speaking skills with a major national spotlight shining on him.

Crist's decision to switch parties rather than run the risk of an embarrassing primary loss did little to slow Rubio's momentum.

The three-way general election race between Rubio, Crist and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), which was once expected to be the marquee Senate contest of 2010, fizzled. Rubio's massive fundraising -- he raised more than $5 million between July 1 and Sept. 30 -- coupled with his skills as a communicator put the race quickly out of reach.

One of Rubio's closing ads -- a two-minute spot detailing his life story -- tells you everything you need to know about his abilities. (One Democratic consultant, after watching the ad, raved about Rubio's potential.)

Speculation about Rubio as a 2012 presidential candidate may be slightly premature but there's little question that he has the goods to be a player on the national stage in the not-so-distant future.

Our runners-up for best candidate of 2010 are after the jump. Who did we miss? Offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Runners up for best candidate of 2010:

Scott Brown: It's easy to overlook Brown since his monumental special election victory in Massachusetts happened way back in January 2010. But, Brown's abilities -- as showcased in that campaign -- are considerable. While his victory is often attributed to the atrocious effort by state Attorney General Martha Coakley, Brown's everyman appeal and populist pitch was a perfect fit for an electorate ready for change. Brown's candidate skills will be severely tested when he seeks reelection in Democratic-friendly Massachusetts in 2012.

Kirsten Gillibrand: The New York Senator is, quite simply, one of the most dogged campaigners in elected office -- anywhere. Picked by Gov. David Paterson (D) to fill the remaining two years of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's term in 2009, Gillibrand went on a furious courtship of the state's liberal base -- seeking to make amends for some of the more conservative positions she had taken during her time as a Congresswoman from upstate New York. With a little help from the White House -- they kept Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) from running -- Gillibrand managed to avoid a contested primary and coasted to victory earlier this month over former Rep. Joe DioGuardi. Gillibrand is up for a full term in 2012 but with her fundraising abilities and determination, it's hard to see her being seriously challenged.

Kristi Noem: At the start of the 2010 cycle, beating Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) was unimaginable to even the most optimistic of Republican operatives. Sandlin had a famous last name -- her father, grandfather and grandmother all served in elected office in South Dakota -- and was regarded as not just a rising star in the state but nationally as well. Enter Noem. After a surprisingly strong primary win in June over two well-known candidates, Noem took off -- emerging as one of Republicans most able recruits. She needed to be as Sandlin proved a resilient incumbent despite the tough national environment for her party. Noem eked out a two-point win.

Martin O'Malley: When former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) announced he would seek a rematch of his 2006 race against Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) it was widely assumed that the race would be one of the closest in the country. Or not. O'Malley outworked Erhlich in the early days of the race and by the time voters started paying attention it had become clear that the Democrat had figured out how to sail above the negative sentiment about his party coursing through the country. O'Malley's abilities have long led people to speculate about a potential presidential candidacy; his performance in 2010 will likely stoke that speculation.

Tom Perriello: Perriello drew loads of national attention during his first two years in office as an unapologetic supporter of President Obama's agenda despite the Republican-leaning nature of the district -- Virginia's 5th -- that he represented. That approach led to an assumption that he would be crushed by state Sen. Robert Hurt (R) on Nov. 2. But, through a combination of massive fundraising and sheer will -- not to mention a last minute campaign visit from President Obama -- Perriello went into election day with a real chance. He ultimately lost the race but his four-point margin was smaller than almost anyone expected and set him up as a potential statewide candidate in future elections.

Rick Perry: Few politicians understand the psyche of the people they represent better than Perry, who was reelected as governor of Texas for a third term this fall. Perry embodies Texas: intensely proud, fiercely independent and unrepentantly conservative. For all of the predictions that this would be the election where Perry's campaign mojo would wear off, he crushed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a March Republican primary and cruised to a 13-point win over much-touted former Houston Mayor Bill White (D) in the general election. Perry will bring his knack for campaigning to the Republican Governors Association chairmanship in the next election.

By Chris Cillizza  | November 17, 2010; 2:47 PM ET
Categories:  Fix Notes  
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