Campaign Crawlers

Goodbye, Charlie

Crist campaign circles the drain.

By 2.26.10

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TAMPA – "Moderate" Florida governor Charlie Crist's Senate campaign is circling the drain. And it's mostly his own fault.

Crist, a formerly conservative politician who "grew in office" after becoming governor in 2007, went through a 50-point lead over conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio faster than Sherman went through Georgia. Polls released this week by Rasmussen and the Florida Chamber of Commerce both show Rubio with an 18-point lead over Crist in a race for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate seat Mel Martinez resigned from last summer.

Crist's fall and Rubio's ascendance (the Marco Rubio who gave a well-received keynote speech at CPAC last week) have been so steady and uninterrupted that key members of Crist's political organization -- including his political director and his media consultant -- are leaving in order to pursue "other opportunities" (translation: this train is going nowhere -- I'd better find another one to ride).

The sounds you hear of many hands clapping are those of grassroots Florida Republicans pleased at the prospect of Crist's long but undistinguished political career coming to an end. Not to mention the prospect of a young, energetic, intelligent conservative representing Florida in the U.S. Senate instead of the Arlen Specter wannabe Crist has become.

In a series of straw-polls taken by Republican organizations across the state, the most active Sunshine State Republicans have demonstrated their overwhelming preference for Rubio, who fashioned a conservative record in eight years in the Florida House and has run for the Senate nomination on conservative themes such as limited government, reliance on the market, personal freedom, and a strong foreign policy.

There have been 23 such straw polls, taken by groups from Republican county executive committees to Republican women's clubs to business groups. Rubio has won all of them, by a total margin of 1993 to 265. Crist has tried to claim these votes are unimportant, just a sliver of the Republican electorate. Perhaps there's nothing else Crist could have said about these votes, but anyone who follows politics knows this is nonsense. The folks who voted in the straw polls are exactly the kind of voters who will show up in August on primary day. Crist is in the deepest possible trouble with the most active Republicans who know the most about him.

It wasn't always this way between Charlie and the Republican base, especially between Charlie and the Republican Executive Committee of Crist's home County of Pinellas. In 2006 this group endorsed Crist for governor and raised thousands to help him win this office. But by January of this year the romance with the home-town boy was over. The Pinellas REC voted 106-54 for Rubio over Crist in its Senate straw poll. This 106-54 drubbing, even with home field advantage, has been Crist's most successful straw vote so far.

So what happened between 2006 when Crist was the recipient of hugs and checks and all best wishes, and 2010, by which time so many grass-roots Republicans had had more than all they wanted of Charlie Crist? Not that long ago Crist was a popular Republican politician with a fairly conservative record, even though his political achievements have been too slim to make even a decent Trivial Pursuit question. The answer is that Charlie Crist got greedy -- not greedy for money, but politically greedy.

Crist is not the first Republican politician to assume that he has Republican and conservative voters in the bag, so why not try to poach a few Democrat and liberal voters by whooping up things these voters like? It's the old all-things-to-all-people gambit. It usually doesn't work for long. And it certainly backfired here.

Crist was just a little more bodacious in the way he dialed for Democratic voters. He tried to stimulate Democratic erogenous zones by whooping up leftist policies like cap and trade and other costly environmental policies that are beloved of leftists but produce no environmental benefit at a huge cost in money and freedom. He appointed a liberal justice to the Florida Supreme Court. When conservative social issues came up, Charlie was nowhere to be found. He crooned a lot about "bipartisanship," which was usually just a cover for taking leftist positions.

But Crist's biggest misstep was supporting a then popular President Obama's $787 billion "stimulus" slush fund before it was adopted. He did this at a time when other Republicans were advocating smaller government spending and targeted tax cuts to deal with the recession. Much later, when it became clear how negative his support of the slush fund was in a conservative-minded political year, Crist said he hadn't really supported it and wouldn't have voted for it if he had been in the Senate. At the same time he's claimed the stimulus has saved 87,000 jobs in Florida, a comically precise number, and a downright curious one considering unemployment in Florida is higher now than it was when the slush fund was adopted. Not even veteran Charlie-watchers can make head or tail of Charlie's various re-inventions on this one.

On a Newsmax-TV interview Tuesday, still popular former Florida governor Jeb Bush called Crist's support of Obama's spending plan "unforgivable." He said Crist should have supported other Republicans who were calling for less government-intensive alternatives.

"He's the only statewide political leader that embraced the stimulus package when Republicans were fighting to suggest an alternative," Bush said. "In its place we have this massive spending bill that is not related to stimulus. It's related to trying to carry out a liberal agenda. He did it the day before the vote. It was a mistake, and then he denies that he would have supported the bill."

So what's a candidate in a flat spin to do? Crist's left turn since assuming the governor's office is too well known now for Crist's claim to be the real conservative in the race to have any credibility. An option would be to exercise some real leadership in his last year as governor. But leadership has never been part of Charlie's game. He's been a hands-off governor, allowing the Florida Legislature to deal with the state's problems, only showing up after the battle was over to claim credit where possible.

The recession may be officially over, but the melody lingers on in Florida at least as much as elsewhere. Florida is looking for about $3 billion in spending cuts or tax and fee increases this spring to balance its budget, as the sate constitution requires. The federals may be able to print money or run a larger tab with China. Florida can't. With almost no help from Crist, who has vetoed some of its spending cuts, the Florida Legislature has sweated Florida's budget down from $73 billion three years ago to $66.5 billion this year. It hasn't been easy. Selected taxes and fees have had to be raised, discretionary spending has been cut, and trust-funds have been raided.

It will be even harder this session, which begins next week, to find $3 billion more in cuts or revenue increases. So with this in mind, Crist pitched in by submitting a proposed budget calling for hundreds of millions in new spending on K-12, the university system, and environmental projects. Crist introduced his proposed budget in steps, mostly in front of the constituencies for the new spending that he knows will never happen. He's once again thrown the legislature under the bus, leaving it to legislators to balance the budget and be the bad guys who have to tell those expecting the new spending the governor proposed that it won't happen. What a guy.

The plan backfired. Whatever support Crist has received from those wanting more spending for education and the environment is tempered by the fact that Florida media saw through the scam and gigged Crist for it. The legislature didn't take the proposed budget seriously.

The only thing left to a desperate Crist to turn things around is to go negative. To try to find something with which to tarnish Rubio. So far Crist's attempts to paint Rubio as a big spender, a tax increaser, or a proponent of cap and trade have been pretty much laughed off by Republican voters and most of the state's media. The facts just don't support any of these charges.

The latest gambit of the Crist campaign is to try to suggest that somehow Rubio engaged in some shady spending with a Republican Party of Florida credit card Rubio had when he was Speaker and was crisscrossing the state to support Republican candidates and raise money for the party. This probably won't get much traction either. Rubio has said that he kept his personal and party spending separate. In any case, he says, he didn't spend as much in the almost three years he had a party credit card than Crist's hand-picked, high-rolling state party chairman Jim Greer spent in a month. (Greer was recently obliged to resign his party chairmanship because he was better at spending party money than raising it.) The state party approved Rubio's expenditures.

Florida national committeewoman Sharon Day jumped into the fray after the word surfaced that Rubio's credit card expenses were in question.

"I'm not upset with Marco Rubio at all," Day said. "If you can raise $12 million on $110,000, we all should be that good."

So there it is. Crist attached himself to a new president when said president was popular, and tried to woo Democrats and independents by supporting the big government projects that were popular in 2007 and 2008. Now that he's facing a solid conservative candidate in a conservative year, this support has proven toxic. It will probably cost Crist his political career. Not many will be crying. Most in the party have moved on to "other opportunities."

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.