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Florida Bolero

The Rubio-Crist race is over -- but the August 24 primary is still a long and dreary, repetitive way off.

By 3.23.10

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TAMPA -- It can't be much fun being Charlie Crist just now. He's having to watch his 18-year political career dissolve. And there doesn't seem to be a thing he can do about it.

Timing is everything, or at least the most important thing, in so many areas of life. And Charlie's political timing has been terrible. At least over the last three years. Thanks to some moderate and liberal stances Florida's governor has taken since 2007, and some ham-handed attempts to cover up those positions or re-invent them, Crist has established an NCAA record for giving up a lead.

After being up by 50 points last spring, Crist now trails conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio by 30 points or more in a race for nomination for the U.S. Senate seat Mel Martinez resigned from last summer. Rubio, running on conservative themes and vigorous opposition to the Obama regime, came up so quickly it's a wonder he didn't get the bends. 

Last spring Rubio was in single digits in what was almost universally seen as a quixotic race against a popular sitting governor. Beat Charlie Crist? No chance, no way, no how, the political experts said. But sometimes experts outrun their expertise. (A skeptic once explained that a sex expert is a guy who knows 154 positions but doesn't know any girls. I'm not sure what this has to do with Rubio and Crist, but I've been waiting years to work it into a column.)

In conservative-minded 2010, Florida independents are no longer enchanted with the expensive environmental schemes Crist has whooped up in the name of saving Florida from global warming. Nor are they keen on President Obama's $787 billion "stimulus" slush fund that Crist, almost alone among Republicans, supported before it was policy, and then tried to say he hadn't supported, and then defended, and then, hell, I forget what he did then. Trying to follow Crist's cutbacks, misdirections, reversals, head fakes, and re-inventions on this one could give a snake a back ache.

The governor is still sitting, but he's far from popular now. And much of the popularity he still enjoys is with Florida Democrats. Among conservative Florida Republicans, as measured by polls and by the 25 straw votes Republican organizations have held across the state, Crist is on course for the single-digits that were Rubio's lot a year ago. And it's just these conservative Republicans who vote in Republican primaries.

From the point of view of Rubio's conservative supporters, the worst thing about the primary is that it's five months away. August 24, to be exact. This gives the amply-financed Crist a long time to go negative on Rubio, which is all he has left. If this string is played out to the bitter end, both Republican candidates and all Floridians, except perhaps likely Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek, will be sick to death of it before the voting takes place.

Primary day may be off in the gauzy future. The summer solstice and the baseball All-Star Game will be memories by then and we'll be in the heart of the Florida tropical storm season. But a good argument can be made that the primary election is really over now.

In a week's conversations with Republican political consultants, current and former Republican office-holders, business types active in Republican politics, and savvy academics (there are some -- really), I couldn't find a one of these worthies who could imagine a way Crist could turn around a campaign in which he has been consistently losing five to 10 points a month for a year. This hasn't been an up and down race -- it's been all up for Rubio and all down for Crist. The whole business has been as consistent and inexorable as Ravel's "Bolero," but not as much fun to listen to for Crist.

Not only has Rubio built an impressive lead, but the percentage of undecideds in most polls has shrunk to the 10 percent range. So Crist faces the double job of changing Rubio supporters back to undecided before they can be enlisted for Crist's team. Hard to see how he does this, as he's about the most well-known politician in the state. Republicans voters here know whether they like Charlie Crist or not. And this is his problem.

With his quirky, all-over-the-ideological-map record as governor, Florida Republicans just aren't convinced Crist is the conservative in this race. The mood this year among Republicans, and among an increasing number of independents, is to send a U.S. Senator to Washington to oppose the Obama administration and a leftist Democratic Congress, not someone likely to play footsie with them as Crist has. (Big government Republicans are so 2008.) Rubio's campaign, based on return to limited government, decreased public spending, less regulation, more dependence on markets over government bureaucrats, and vigorous defense of America's security interests, has been much more convincing.

So Crist won't be able to play the conservative card with Florida Republican voters. Nor can he whoop up his record of leadership as Florida's governor, as there isn't one. He's been a hands-off governor, often absent, who has put almost no stamp on Florida state policies during his time in the governor's mansion. In the areas he's made promises -- lowering property taxes and property insurance rates -- there's been little or no success.

The only thing left to Crist is to go negative, to try to paint Rubio as an unreliable no-good. He's trying that now, hamming it up about the fact that Rubio carried a Republican Party of Florida credit card while he, Rubio, was raising money from the state party and campaigning for Republicans. He's alleging that Rubio made personal purchases on this card, and also made personal use of money raised through two political committees Rubio formed to boost Republican candidates. Rubio says the money was spent was for the purposes it was collected for, and that he reimbursed any personal expenditures made on the party card.

This story will go on for awhile. But so far there's no evidence the charges have gained any traction among likely Republican voters. Rubio's poll numbers were higher after the first round of Crist's credit card accusations. It appears to this point that the political committees operated pretty much like other such committees, in both parties. No one who gave money to these committees has complained about how the money was used. 

So while Crist's charges that Marco Rubio is some kind of credit card cheat will almost certainly not help Crist's chances of making it to the U.S. Senate, they delight Florida Democrats, eager to take up the cry. And the charges are catnip for the liberal media in Florida, always looking for another club to hit conservatives with. The McGovernite St. Petersburg Times has already published an editorial suggesting Rubio is some kind of a cross between Bernie Madoff and John Dillinger. The Palm Beach Post has piled on too.

Vague and baseless charges of financial hanky-panky not only have the potential to hurt Rubio in his general election campaign against Miami Congressman Meek (busy Sunday voting for Obamacare), but could hurt other Florida Republican candidates in November. Republican donors have already asked Crist to cool it, to stick with the issues and put away the mud.

No one should be surprised if before Crist and Rubio square off in debate next Sunday on Fox News Sunday, Republican leaders in Florida take the time to explain to Crist that if he wishes to have a political career beyond August, the last thing he wants to do is conduct a scorched earth campaign.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.