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No More Mr. Nice Charlie?

Marco Rubio's long march is leaving Charlie Crist with no alternative but to go negative.

By 11.23.09

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TAMPA -- Florida governor Charlie Crist will have to do something soon. But what? He's already tried to paint himself as a true conservative. But this hasn't worked because of the liberal hobby-horses he's ridden hard and put up wet since he's been governor -- whooping up President Obama's stimulus slush fund, calling for cap and trade, et al. And he can't run on his accomplishments as Florida's CEO because there haven't been any. He could go negative. But considering his opponent, this would be tricky.

Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio is, quite unexpectedly, eating Crist's lunch in the race for the 2010 Republican nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat. Crist enjoys a staggering 5 to 1 fund-raising advantage over Rubio, thanks to his connections to establishment corporate, legal, and socialite money. But thanks to Rubio's conservative record and agenda in what is stacking up as a conservative year, Rubio has the momentum. Crist still holds a lead in the race, but his lead in points has, like the autumn leaves, dwindled down to a precious few.

Rubio has benefited from a growing disillusionment with President Obama's socialist agenda, an agenda Rubio is offering a clear conservative alternative to. He's also benefited from a movement of Republican and independent voters to the right. Those conservative Republicans will find him attractive in Florida's closed Republican Primary in August. And conservative independents make Rubio a strong candidate in the general election against a liberal Democrat (pardon the redundancy).

The latest Research 2000 poll, showing Crist leading Rubio by 47 to 37 (the same poll that last winter showed Crist ahead 57-4), holds an even more astonishing statistic. It shows that 57 percent of the people polled have no opinion of Rubio, reflecting the fact that Rubio still trails Crist significantly in name recognition. Assuming this poll is anywhere near accurate, this means a remarkable percentage of people who know about Rubio support him. The more he becomes known, as he inevitably will when his grass-roots retail campaign adds a media wholesale dimension next year, the better his numbers will be.

This is why the Crist campaign has gone to general quarters, taking on a new campaign manager, a new press spokesman, and hinting darkly that a more aggressive Charlie will soon emerge, one who will unmask that conservative pretender Rubio.

"Be still, my heart," seems to be the Rubio campaign reaction. "I think Charlie Crist is desperate," Rubio said to Fox news. "He has a serious credibility crisis. Desperate people do desperate things. But for us it's not a problem."

The next few months will tell how big a problem the Crist campaign can be for Rubio. But for now it seems that conservative is good in a Republican primary, and Rubio has the conservative goods more than Crist has.

So far, the anti-conservative charges and specifications the Crist camp has tried to pin on Rubio are pretty lame. They include: Rubio did not vigorously support a Florida law that allows workers to have guns in their cars and trucks at work when parked on company property and so he's therefore weak on the 2nd Amendment, Rubio spent state money after becoming speaker of the Florida House on remodeling House offices and paid his press secretary too much, and he was insufficiently vigorous in opposing illegal immigration into Florida.

It's going to be hard to make any of these stick. Rubio has always had an A rating from the national NRA. And Crist himself had problems with the guns-in-the-parking lot law because it goes crosswise with another important right, the property rights of business owners. 

Rubio claims most of the money spent to improve Florida House facilities was for asbestos removal, not cosmetic improvements.

Rubio's press secretary did have a high salary, and perhaps Rubio could have gotten this kind of help for less. But a press secretary's salary hardly seems like a kill-shot.

Rubio, whose parents fled Cuba in the 1960s, has a clear position on immigration, which calls for strict border control. Crist opens up his own vulnerability if he hams it up on this issue because he supported the McCain/Kennedy "We Don't Need No Stinking Borders Act of 2007."

Crist has not had a record of going negative in previous campaigns. He's always been a smiler, not a fighter. But then he's never been in a race like this one against a candidate like Rubio. Crist's career to this point has been much like the early career of Mike Tyson, so many first round knockouts there has been little chance to learn critical ring skills. Rubio could be Crist's Buster Douglas.

A good shoeshine, a tan, a smile, and "It's a beautiful day in Florida" won't be enough to win this one. And some of Crist's previous campaigns have amounted to little more. If the Crist campaign does go negative, it won't be Charlie himself dishing the dirt, but his underlings, as in the juvenile anti-Rubio website that was popped up last month.

The risk of going negative for Crist is that it would further alienate the conservative base that is critical in a Florida Republican primary. At the end of the day, there's no way Crist wins a conservative bona fides contest with Rubio. And going negative also risks alienating still-popular former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has yet to endorse or campaign for his old South Florida pal, Rubio. A recent poll shows an overwhelming majority of Florida Republicans would rather have Jeb still their governor than Charlie. The last thing Crist wants is Bush as a member of Team Rubio.

While Charlie continues to get blue, Rubio's campaign is still enjoying successes. His most recent coup was being chosen as the keynote speaker for the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference to be held in Washington in February.

"We chose Rubio because he's an up and coming leader," said CPAC Director Lisa de Pasquale. "He's someone a lot of people are excited about."

The three-day CPAC conference each year is probably the largest gathering of conservative officials, media, and money-types in the country. And the coveted opening day, 10 a.m. speaking slot is a plum. No better place or way for Rubio to put his conservative credentials before the conservative world. He joins a pretty select group of former CPAC speakers which include Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, George Will, Tony Snow, and an obscure former western governor named Ronald Reagan.

With exposure through groups like CPAC, and the Club for Growth, which has endorsed Rubio, along with kind words from many of the nation's leading conservative pundits and publications -- George Will has flatly predicted Rubio will be Florida' s next senator -- Crist's attempt to portray himself as the true conservative in this race appears to be Sisyphean.

If going negative on Rubio is a high-risk strategy, Crist might be better advised to consider actually putting together a conservative agenda for Florida and trying to govern based on that agenda. On the evidence of Crist's first two years as governor, this isn't likely. Au the contraire, Crist has shown, after seeking it, no real taste for the governor's job.

Crist has held a very light hand to the tiller of Florida's ship of state in his first two years. His calendar, showing him absent about as many days as he's been on the job, has gotten extensive coverage in Florida media. Certainly over the last year he's been more of a campaigner than a governor, jetting off to Washington, New York, Arizona, Las Vegas, and California for fundraisers, even designing his Florida schedule around fundraisers and such ribbon-cutting events that get him free media.

Crist knows how to grip and grin. But his footprint on Florida governance is pretty shallow, even though he's quick to take credit for such positive things the Florida Legislature has managed to achieve while he's been governor (often in-absentia). Anyone wishing to be greeted with silence could ask a group of Florida political insiders what Charlie Crist's agenda is for the next regular session of the Florida Legislature. 

It's not that Florida doesn't have serious problems. Florida's unemployment rate is now 11.2 percent, the seventh highest in the nation. If Crist has the first idea about what to do about this he's kept it hidden. Florida faces a budget deficit of at least $2.6 billion next year. No word yet from Crist how to deal with this either.

So there's no mystery about why Crist would like to leave the difficult job of being governor of a large, complex state with real problems for the relative obscurity of the Senate, where responsibility is diffuse and there's no pesky constitutional requirement of a balanced budget, as Florida has. Unlike Rubio, Crist has never told Floridians what he would like to achieve in the U.S. Senate. We only know he would like to be there. Voters paying attention are entitled to conclude that in Washington he would mail it in or sub it out, as he has in Florida.

Even with Florida's many pressing issues, Floridians who don't attend Crist fundraisers see little of him. If he were elected to an office in Washington, Floridians might never see him again. To Florida conservatives this prospect holds a certain amount of charm. But this doesn't stop most of them from supporting Rubio.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.