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Pants on Fire

Is the Charlie Crist model of reasonable Republicanism defunct?

By 11.13.09

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TAMPA -- Wrong season perhaps, but Florida Governor Charlie Crist is mired in a slump. He just can't buy a hit. A large part of his problem is that Crist's wind-sock form of "moderate" Republicanism is increasingly out of favor. And he isn't helping himself, as a bit of desperation starts to set in, by telling fibs on the campaign trail. (Never a good idea. You ALWAYS get caught.)

As recently as last summer Crist's race for the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. Senate was supposed to be easy. After all, he only had to get past Marco Rubio, a little-known former speaker of the Florida House from Miami. It hasn't worked out that way. Rubio has run a vigorous retail campaign based on conservative issues versus Crist's more philosophy-free, happy-talk approach. Rubio has eaten into Crist's popularity, winning straw polls at Republican executive committees across the state, as well as pulling in endorsements from conservative figures and organizations.

In his 18-year run up the Florida political food-chain, Crist has never encountered an opponent as talented and persistent as Rubio. And Crist is not currently handling it well. 

Among the latest setbacks for Governor Sunshine is the Club for Growth's endorsement of Rubio, along with the release of a TV ad the conservative group produced showing Crist endorsing President Obama's stimulus slush fund on stage in Ft. Myers with Obama February 10, before the slush fund was adopted. This contradicts, in living color, Crist's recent assertion that he never supported the stimulus hustle.

A Nov. 6 editorial on Crist's remarkable switcheroo in the "Ft. Myers News-Press" carried the headline: "Crist's lies won't help campaign." Ouch!

"When we saw what he'd said we knew we had to set the record straight as soon as possible," Club for Growth Communications director Michael Connolly told me. Connolly said a decision will be made soon on when the ad will start running in Florida and in which markets. This won't do Crist's credibility any good.

Nor has the opera buffa business of Crist telling reporters he wasn't aware that Obama was in Florida in late October for the first visit since Crist crooned with our rookie president about the beauties of spending three quarters of a trillion tax dollars haphazardly in a hope that some of it might help get the economy on track. Newspapers and broadcast media across the state have been reporting that the White House not only sent Crist's office an itinerary of Obama's visit but invited him to join the president.

It's not hard to understand why Crist doesn't want to be as close to Obama now as he was last February. Obama and his policies were hot back then, now they're more like radioactive. Obama's numbers have tanked and the conservative base, critical in Republican primaries, is deserting Crist. But why deny you knew the guy was in town? This not only makes folks question Crist's truthfulness, but also puts him in danger of becoming a figure of fun. A rookie mistake on the part of a guy who has been around awhile.

On the other side of the field the Rubio campaign continues to go swimmingly. Rubio won his 12th straight Republican organization straw poll, this time the Okaloosa County Republican Executive Committee (just east of Pensacola in the panhandle), by a margin of 86 to four. In straw votes, mostly Republican executive committees, Rubio is 12-0 and in total has whomped Crist 581 to 62. Crist has to be concerned that the state's most active Republicans reject him so totally. 

Probably Rubio's biggest recent triumph was the enthusiastic reception he received Monday at the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee meeting. While jostling for a place to stand in the packed meeting room of Tucson's restaurant in Clearwater, committee member Dennis Green of Ozona told me these meetings usually draw about 100 to 125 souls. That night more than 400 turned up to hear Rubio's stump speech on conservative themes such as limited government, liberty, a strong foreign policy, and an economy built around entrepreneurs rather than around government bureaucrats and politicians.

One of the best received lines was when Rubio said, "I want to go to Washington to stand up to the direction of the current administration and offer a clear alternative." Big applause. He took a beat, and added, "I don't think anyone else running in this race will do that." Even bigger applause.

This was informed applause, as Pinellas is Charlie Crist's home county, where he's lived, when not in Tallahassee, since school days. The final insult for Crist in this appearance occurred when Crist's own congressman, Republican Bill Young, who's represented Crist's home district in Congress since about when Studebaker went broke, declined to endorse Crist. Young told reporters that he usually doesn't make endorsements in Republican primaries, though he has this cycle endorsed Bill McCollum in the race to replace Crist as governor.

So what happened? Why is Crist having such a bad time of it? (I should point out that Crist is probably still ahead in the race. Just not nearly as much as he was, and he definitely doesn't have the mo.) Wasn't Crist just recently being talked about as a template for the new kind of Republican who could make the party competitive for years to come? Well, yes, he was being talked about that way by the people who always say that to win elections Republicans have to become more like Democrats. In 2009, it isn't selling.

In his career in the Florida Legislature and in the two Florida cabinet posts he's held, Crist generally steered, with only a few deviations, a conservative course. Low taxes, pro-gun, law and order. He even picked up the nickname "Chain gang Charlie" for supporting legislation to bring that institution back to Florida. He mostly steered clear of social issues.

But after Crist was elected governor in 2006 he seemed to "grow in office." Over the past two years Crist has often been described as a moderate, a populist, or even a liberal. He's attracted these designations by supporting such big government initiatives as President Obama's stimulus slush fund, cap and trade (another boondoggle he's trying to claim now he never supported), as well as supporting federal legislation that would grant amnesty to illegal aliens. He recently appointed a liberal justice to the Florida Supreme Court. 

Crist hasn't helped his conservative bona fides by hanging out with and being photographed over the past two years with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Kennedy, Jr., rocker Sheryl Crow, Laurie David (she produced Al Gore's hysterical screed, An Inconvenient Truth), Robert Redford, the Prince of Wales, and other leftie luminaries. It's much harder to find a likeness of our Charlie with conservative leaders.

With Crist it isn't so much that he's wedded to moderate or liberal positions, it's that it is becoming increasingly clear he has no core political philosophy at all other than the devout belief that he should continually hold public office. Crist could be the poster boy for the ambitious but soulless politician who on the major issues of the day feels very strongly both ways. There's no there, there.

Rubio has nine months left to get his story out. If the current trend lines continue, and as we all know they don't always in American politics, Charlie Crist could have gone in three years from a template for the Republican future to an also-ran looking for a real job. It's not always easy being a template. 

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.