Campaign Crawlers

Charlie Sees Red

In the ultimate tribute to his opponent, Charlie Crist is suddenly pretending to be the true-blue conservative in the Florida Senate race.

By 10.19.09

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TAMPA -- Charlie Crist is trying to dress himself in the borrowed robes of a conservative. Even Macbeth, another ambitious guy, knew when the robes weren't his. 

It's a transparent scam. But will Florida Republican primary voters buy it? They've given Crist a pass on a lot of things over his career. But he's asking them to buy some pretty outlandish things now.

It's easy enough to see why Florida's "whichever-way-the-wind-is-blowing" populist governor is worried. An Insider Advantage Poll last week showed Crist's approval rating had dropped to 48 percent, with 41 percent disapproving of the job he's doing. If this poll is accurate it marks a significant fall-off from approval ratings in the sixties that Crist enjoyed for his first two years as governor. The poll contains other questions about taxes and the economy which yield about the percentages one would expect, an argument that the poll does reflect reality. 

Perhaps a cooling of enthusiasm for Florida's governor is not too surprising in a state with 11 percent unemployment and which is suffering other ills of the current economic unpleasantness.

Meanwhile, Crist's conservative opponent for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that Mel Martinez recently gave up is doing extremely well. He's excited the party's conservative base, most of whose members have long ago lost patience with Crist and are convinced the "R" after Crist's name stands for RINO.

Marco Rubio, a charismatic, young Cuban-American from Miami with a conservative record in the Florida House, collected a little more than a million dollars for his campaign during the quarter-three reporting period. Much less than the sitting governor who's tight with the party's establishment money men, but still enough at this point in the campaign (the primary is next August) to ensure he can get his story out across Florida.

On top of his financial success, Rubio, a skilled and articulate campaigner who runs on conservative issues, continues to clean Crist's clock in straw votes being taken by Republican groups, mostly county executive committees, across the state. In the latest, last week, members of the Palm Beach County Republican Executive Committee went for Rubio over Crist by a margin of 90-17.

In 11 straw votes so far -- eight county executive committees, two Republican women's clubs, and the Florida Federation of College Republicans -- Rubio is 11-0 and has bested Crist by a total of 495 to 58. Until last week Crist supporters could parry Rubio's straw-vote victories by saying they took place in small counties that are to the right of the state as a whole. But this can hardly be said of affluent Palm Beach, home to almost 1.3 million souls, including more than 238,000 registered Republicans.

I had the opportunity to ask Crist about these straw votes and about Rubio's successful financial quarter at a Reagan Day dinner in Tampa a couple of Friday's back. "Well, it was better than last quarter," the ever-smiling and unruffleable Crist told me. As for the lopsided straw votes, "I don't make much of them. There are different factions in the Republican Party. That's just one group."

A pretty large group, though. And as these are the party activists and workers, the folks who follow politics most closely, they are the people in the party who know Crist best. They show up to vote in primaries. They also showed up about 35-strong at the site of the Reagan dinner in 92-degree heat (in Tampa, not a dry heat) to wave Rubio signs as attendees arrived. Zero Crist signs.

Later at the dinner Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer, appointed to his post by Crist, sought me out to clarify. "We have to respect" the straw voters, Greer said. But went on to suggest the straw voters were local activists who are "not in synch with Republican voters across the state."

I asked Greer about some of the more liberal stances Crist has taken since he's been governor, and Greer had some remarkable things to say. Asked about the inconsistency between Crist's saying that he is against more taxes and more government while at the same time supporting cap and trade, Greer said he "couldn't find where he [Crist] has ever said he supports cap and trade." I guess I'll have to lend Jim my clip file. Perhaps it's difficult to get newspapers delivered or TV reception at Greer's office. Crist has said this repeatedly, though not lately as support for the idea seems to be sagging.

Greer also insisted Charlie shouldn't be gigged for trying to get Florida's fair share of stimulus funds, but he failed to mention that Charlie helped our rookie president whoop up the stimulus package in Florida before it was adopted. This was in February, when Obama and his policies were more popular than they are now.

Greer ended our conversation with this assault on credulity: "Charlie Crist is conservative to the core." Misfortunately for Crist, much of the conservative base of the Florida Republican Party is convinced, on the available evidence, that Charlie doesn't have a core. He's trying to convince them otherwise. 

Last week in Lakeland (the largest city in conservative Polk County), Crist told a lunch crowd of about 200, put together by the Lakeland Republican Club, that he's "about as conservative as you can get." The governor who crooned about the need for Obama's elephantine slush fund (aka the stimulus package) just eight months ago is now saying in sensible venues such as Lakeland, "The message I have for Washington is enough is enough -- no more runaway spending." (No wonder Crist was recently nominated for the 2009 Bill Clinton Shamelessness Award.) 

Lakeland is a civilized place where visitors are treated graciously. This may be the only reason that no one in the audience yelled out, "You lie!" Crist's record as governor, the office he was elected to in 2006, cannot be tortured into a conservative mold. Even Crist wasn't trying to do this in December of 2007 when he was asked by a Sarasota Herald- Tribune reporter if he was a conservative. His answer was, "sure." Asked what being conservative meant to him, his less than reassuring answer was, "I don't know. It doesn't really matter to me. I'm not absorbed much by what labels people put on me."

But it matters now, when it appears conservatives are deserting him in division-sized units. Crist is spending some of his substantial campaign war chest on radio ads, some of them airing in Ft. Myers, where Crist went on stage to plight his troth to Obama's stimulus piñata. The ad says:

"Washington is out of control. Yet the president has the same tired answer for every problem: to spend more of your money. I'm Charlie Crist. I'm running for the U.S. Senate because Washington needs a dose of Florida common sense… In the last two years federal government spending has grown by over 25 percent. Here in Florida, I've slashed government by 10 percent. That's $7 billion…. Less government, less taxes. It's more than a slogan. It's my commitment and the record I bring from Tallahassee to Washington. We can't spend our way into prosperity or tax our way into growth. Let's cut the size of the federal government and return your family's money so you can decide how best to spend it. I'm Charlie Crist and I approved this message. "

Even for a political ad this is truly breathtaking in its hypocrisy and dishonesty. In addition to the about-face on Obama's stimulus, most folks paying even minimal attention know that Florida's constitution requires a balanced budget. So the $7 billion in reduced spending Crist is claiming credit for came about because the recession reduced the state's revenues and the Florida Legislature was obliged to cut spending. Newspapers and other media across Florida called Crist on this one.

If Crist had been saying things like he's saying now in his ads from the start of his governorship, and then following up on his rhetoric, he could now put his Senate campaign on cruise control. It's doubtful Rubio would even be in the race.

Instead Crist has been a political chameleon, changing colors every time the political winds change direction. More and more Floridians have begun to notice this. So another change from blue back to red may be problematic for Crist. If this is the case, it increases the chance that the U.S. Senate may have another conservative member beginning in 2011, rather than just someone for Olympia Snowe to go to lunch with.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.