Campaign Crawlers

Charlie Dithers

Florida's Crist now seems set on showing his Independent streak. We'll know by April 30.

By 4.21.10

"I'm running as a Republican" may soon join other unequivocal but ultimately inoperative political quotes in the tradition of "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky" and "I am not a crook." 

Florida's RINO Governor Charlie Crist told Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace and his large national TV audience during a March 28 television debate with conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio that he, Crist, would run against Rubio as a Republican rather than as an independent. He repeated this promise in countless venues before and after this appearance.

As recently as April 8, Crist campaign manager Eric Eikenberg put out this statement: "To put these rumors to rest once and for all, as we have said countless times before, Governor Crist is running for the United States Senate as a Republican. The Governor is proud of his conservative credentials and stands firmly behind the principles of limited government and more personal freedom, the bedrock values of the Republican Party."

Putting aside the confusion caused by a guy claiming to be for limited government and more personal freedom who supported President Obama's $787 billion "stimulus" slush fund and attempted to force a carbon cap and trade system on Florida, could there be any confusions here about Crist's political party intentions? 

Well, there are promises and there are Charlie Crist promises. After two years of most un-Republican-like behavior, Crist appears to be on a path to making the obvious official by leaving the Republican Party. Finding himself behind Rubio by between 11 and 32 points, depending on which recent poll he consulted, for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat Mel Martinez resigned from last summer, Crist is left with the options of admitting defeat and withdrawing from the race or running as an independent. He has until the April 30 filing deadline to decide.

The first option would be the most painless for Florida and the Republican Party, which has a solid conservative candidate in Rubio who would likely win in November. High-ranking party officials and candidates have urged Crist to either run the race out as a Republican or pack it in. Endorsing Rubio in Tampa Monday, likely 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged Crist to "do the right thing," which is either run as a Republican or step aside and support Rubio.

But "the right thing" doesn't often pop up on Crist's recent résumé. The independent option seems the most likely. The same Quinnipiac poll that showed Crist trailing Rubio 56-33 for the Republican nomination also showed that in a three-way race with Crist as an independent, Crist is the choice of 32 percent to Rubio's 30 percent and Democratic Kendrick Meek's 24 percent. The poll, Quinnipiac says, has a margin of error of 4.4 percent. Last April Quinnipiac showed Crist with a 46-point lead over Rubio.

National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Jesmer bears some of the blame for this mess. He discounted Rubio last spring and helped talk Crist into running for the Senate instead of for re-election as governor. He helped to get the NRSC to endorse Crist about 15 minutes after Crist announced for the Senate. Monday he was singing a different song, to wit: "If Governor Crist believes he cannot win the primary then the proper course of action is that he drop out of the race and wait for another day."

Not likely. Most expect Crist to play this out to the end, polling and re-polling his options before deciding. He has withdrawn the attack ads against Rubio scheduled to run this month in the Orlando, Tampa Bay Area, and Pensacola markets while he tries to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He was already under pressure to withdraw the ads, which in a cease-and-desist letter to Crist a delegation of Republican leaders called "false and misleading" and little more than character assassination.

In a year where the Florida electorate, like the nation's, is very polarized, the Quinnipiac three-way numbers have to be suspect. Crist represents the mushy middle in a year where voters tend to be either left or right with attitude. There is no radical middle in Florida this year. 

Slight poll lead or no, it wouldn't be easy for Crist to run as an independent. His campaign fund-raising, already slowed over the last two quarters to less than a third of Rubio's take, would grind to a virtual halt. Who would want to put money into such an unlikely enterprise? And look for lots of Republican Crist donors to ask for the money they have already donated back. Crist has $7.5 million in the bank. But he probably wouldn't be able to keep all of this as a party of one. And the stories of Crist donors queuing up for refunds would not be a campaign manger's dream of "free media."

And just who is Charlie Crist's base as an independent? Crist might be able to get sympathy from many Florida Democrats by alleging he was driven from the Republican Party by mouth-breathing, right-wing tea-partiers and worse. But Democrats this year will mostly vote for Democrats, not passed-over Republicans.

It would be hard to keep an independent Crist campaign staffed up. Former Florida Senator Connie Mack resigned in protest as chairman of Crist's campaign last week after Crist vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have helped put some accountability into public school education in Florida. Mack called the veto "unsupportable and wrong."

Lower level campaign workers will also be leaving as it becomes clear that being a part of Team Crist in 2010 is not a résumé builder. So who organizes the get-out-the-independent-Crist-vote effort on Election Day?

Crist's problem in continuing this race, as a Republican or a cappela, is not so much that his campaign no longer has a campaign chairman. The main problem to this point is the campaign hasn't had a candidate. Crist's main campaign efforts have been in explaining first how he didn't support President Obama's stimulus slush fund until he explained that he did support it because it was a good idea, and trying to convince Florida voters that Rubio is a knave on the basis of, well, on the basis of Charlie says so. If there are things Charlie Crist would like to accomplish as a United States Senator, he has kept them to himself. 

The delegation that sent Crist the cease-and-desist letter asked Crist to "Focus your campaign on issues and policy." If Crist stays in the race, however he stays in the race, he needs to take this advice. 

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.