CLEARWATER, Florida -- The contrast was stark. When conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio addressed the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee in November, the reception in a packed restaurant meeting room was on the high end of enthusiastic. When "moderate" Governor Charlie Crist spoke to the same outfit Monday night before between a quarter and a third fewer people, the reception was courteous. No wild applause as had been the case at several points during Rubio's presentation. When applause came for Crist it was polite. No more. In a few cases the audience took a beat before reacting, unsure if they had just heard an applause line or not.
"Well, there you have it. About two-thirds of the people with very little passion, and many from Hillsborough and Sarasota counties," an executive committee member said to me after the meeting. "Very polite, and this is his home county."
Maybe this is why the better known Crist is now dead even with Rubio, once considered the longest of long shots, for the Republican Senate nomination. A Rasmussen telephone poll released Tuesday shows Crist and Rubio tied at 43 percent each among likely Republican primary voters, with five percent favoring another candidate and nine percent undecided. This is the first time Rubio has been even with the better known Crist, who started way ahead and had every reason to believe he would have an easy time of it.
There were plenty of Crist buttons and hats in the room, and clearly many in the gathering liked Crist and want him, rather than Rubio, to be the next U.S. Senator from Florida. But, taken all around, Crist has no reason to be optimistic about the straw vote on the Senate nomination the executive committee will take next week.
Rubio has the momentum among Floridians active in the Republican Party -- the kind of folks who will vote in next August's primary. So far in the straw vote sweepstakes among Republican organizations, Rubio is 15-0, all the wins by lopsided margins. In one county executive committee he even threw a shutout. He has won in big counties and small. He has won in all regions of the state. But the Pinellas straw vote next month may be the biggest one for Crist.
Crist is a graduate of St. Petersburg High School. He has lived in Pinellas County, except when he has been in Tallahassee, since he came to Florida from Pennsylvania in early grade school. Republicans here know him better than Republicans anywhere else in the state. If Rubio wins next month in Pinellas, which anyone taking the temperature in the room Monday night would predict, this is as close to a political kill shot as you can get. If Crist can't carry Republican activists in his own home county, where can he win?
Executive committee member Jim Dobyns of Treasure Island, familiar with chair count and the square footage of the room, estimated November's Rubio turnout between at 400 and 450, Monday's Crist turnout between 300 and 325. More importantly, fewer actual executive committee members bothered to show up -- 149 for Rubio in November and 120 Monday for Crist.
Rubio was specific in November in outlining ways he would confront the Obama administration in Washington from the Senate -- opposing cap and trade, lowering government spending, allowing entrepreneurs and the market to deal with problems Obama and the Democratic Congress are turning over to government as fast as they can, insisting on a strong America playing a determined and unapologetic role in world affairs. He said the very things that make America the greatest nation in the history of the world are being threatened now by Obama and the current Congress. Florida needs a senator who will fight for these American values and leave a free and prosperous America for our children.
Crist on Monday was a good deal more general and low key, relying on such phrases as, "We need to elect people to take Florida common sense to Washington."
Crist did criticize the Obama administration for spending too much, which probably confused the assembled, as most of them know Crist supported Obama's stimulus slush fund before it was adopted, and is still trying to shake billions more in slush fund money out of Washington to fund high-speed rail in Florida, a project that stands a very good chance of becoming an expensive boondoggle.
Crist criticized Rubio for supporting what Crist calls "the largest tax increase in the state's history," and in fact was a plan of increasing the state's sales tax in return for lowering property taxes. Crist himself has said he would cause property taxes in Florida to "drop like a rock." They haven't.
Crist also criticized Rubio for work Rubio had done in the Florida Speaker's Office and other House offices after he became Speaker. So we were treated to a guy who supported more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars in unspecified federal spending of money we don't have calling a guy putting in carpet and removing asbestos from Florida House office buildings a threat to fiscal soundness.
In his remarks Crist again tried to claim credit for things he clearly has had little or nothing to do with. He likes to present as evidence that he's a fiscal conservative the fact that Florida's budget has gone from $73 billion to $66 billion during his tenure. The smaller budget is due to reduced state revenues caused by the recession, not to anything Crist has done. In fact, Crist has proposed larger budgets than the Florida Legislature has approved, and last year Crist vetoed millions in budget cuts the legislature had made.
Crist, Florida's Secretary of Education for two years, likes to brag that Florida has gone from 31st in education in the nation to among the top ten during his time in office. He never says what these rankings purport to measure, and it turns out he gets this from a publication called Education Week. The Orlando Sentinel reports the authors of the study Crist cites have no idea where Crist gets the 31st rating from. In any case, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush made the significant changes in education while Crist was Secretary of Education and more concerned with seeking the Attorney General's office than in being the state's top schoolmarm.
Crist walked softly around the subject of Obama's slush fund and his support for it. The story he's sticking to is that he just wanted Florida to get its fair share of the slush fund money that was going to be spent anyway. He's fond of saying that if he hadn't been such a bear for Florida getting slush fund money the state "would have lost 20,000 teachers," a claim that seems to have been made up whole cloth.
Crist even tried to take credit for the crime rate in Florida, which he claims has dropped eight percent during his tenure. Leaving aside that crime statistics are about the squishiest you can find anywhere, what on earth could Charlie Crist have possibly had to do with a guy not sticking up a liquor store in Ft. Lauderdale? (Two guys with ski masks sitting in a car. 1st guy: "Hey, wanna stick up a liquor store?"2nd guy: "Are you crazy, man? -- Charlie Crist is governor now. We better sign up for night school instead.")
There's more, but you get the drift. Easy to see why polite was the only reasonable response to Crist's lame presentation. This year Florida Republican voters, and Republican voters elsewhere, are looking for solid conservatism. A conservatism willing to engage the statist agenda of Obama and his merry band. The Republicans at Tucson's restaurant in Clearwater heard that from Marco Rubio in November. They didn't hear it from Charlie Crist Monday.
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