TAMPA -- While Republicans are waiting for enough of a break in the weather to put on a nominating convention here, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist is using the opportunity to try to weasel his way back on to the public stage. He will only succeed if the Florida Democratic Party's bench is really weak.
To the surprise of no one who follows Florida politics, Florida's former Republican governor Charlie Crist has announced that he's endorsing Barack Obama for president. It's too soon to tell if this endorsement will prove helpful to either politician.
This announcement, and his previous announced support for Democratic Senator Bill Nelson for re-election, are almost certainly part of a sequence in which Crist re-registers as a Democrat (a logical enough next step for a chameleon like Crist, he's already been a Republican and an independent) and then seeks the Democratic nomination to run against Florida's current Republican governor Rick Scott. Scott won the governorship by an eyelash in 2010. And while many of his policies are popular with Floridians, Scott personally is not. He's vulnerable.
The liberal Crist chose Florida's most liberal newspaper for his announcement. In an op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times (the publication formerly known as the Saint Petersburg Times) that is alternatively puzzling and vaporous, Crist spells out, sort of, his purported reasons why he backs our rookie president for a second term. Here's Charlie's take on how Obama dealt with the nation's deep troubles when inaugurated in 2009:
The president's response was swift, smart, and farsighted. He kept his compass pointed due north and relentlessly focused on saving jobs, creating more, and helping the many who felt trapped beneath the house of cards that had collapsed upon them.
Clearly something collapsed on whoever wrote this remarkably a-historical bit of nonsense, or he/she simply inhabits a parallel universe. But this sort of thing has been typical of Crist's long but achievement-free political career -- happy talk over substance and reality. Crist's principal political asset is a big smile and a cheery disposition, at least when talking with voters. He hardly ever utters a harsh word on the campaign trail. Though, as we see in this Times piece, he does utter a good many foolish ones.
In his 14 paragraph screed, Crist hits most of the Democratic talking points. Republicans are on the "extreme right," wrong on issues "important to women," and their policies make life difficult for immigrants, seniors, and students. In the first paragraph of Crist's op-ed there is a head-scratcher about "the failure of those who favor extreme rhetoric over sensible compromise." I assume readers are to conclude that Romney and his Republican henchmen are prone to extreme rhetoric and Obama is the Great Compromiser, though if Obama has ever compromised with Republicans on anything in his career, Crist doesn't mention what it is.
Crist was a Republican when he was governor, and while he held a string of offices before gaining the state house, though an increasingly liberal one as the years went by. In 2010, as a sitting governor, Crist was unable to convince conservative Republican voters that he was the conservative to carry the Republican flag in the U.S. Senate race.
When polls made it clear in the summer of that year that Florida Republicans much preferred now Senator Marco Rubio to the mercurial Crist, our Charlie jettisoned every conservative position he ever held, adopted a raft of new liberal ones, and ran for the Senate as an independent. Rubio whomped him by 20 points in November of 2010.
This kind of pasting by a younger man with a much shorter political résumé than Crist's would have been a clear enough message to most politicians. But not for Crist, who while he has accomplished almost nothing in the series of Florida offices he has held, has an even thinner résumé outside of public office. Crist is biding his time before seeking the next political office by "working" as a television crooner for Morgan and Morgan, a large Florida personal injury law firm that is solidly in the Democratic corner.
Crist will have a difficult time of it if he does try to secure the Democratic nomination for an office that party believes it can win. The party has life-time Democrats who will seek the office. These include but are not limited to Alex Sink, a retired Tampa banker who narrowly lost to Scott in 2010, and, very likely, Tampa mayor Pam Iorio. Others will appear as the race approaches.
In addition to convincing his new Democratic colleagues that he should be allowed to start at the top, and that he won't drop them as quickly as he dropped his former Republican colleagues, Crist faces the challenge of convincing Florida voters that he really wants an office that he gave up in 2010. Crist could have run for re-election as governor in 2010, and may well have won. But he declared that he could best serve the state by serving in the U.S. Senate. Most Floridians concluded he could best serve his own self-interests by being a senator, and chose the more substantive Rubio by a wide margin.
So it's uphill all the way for our Charlie on his attempt to return to the governor's mansion. Florida Democrats have no reason to believe this guy is really one of them, any more than he proved to be a loyal Republican. His principles are wildly elastic, even by the standards of politics. And Florida Republicans, still sore about his liberal politics and his bolting the party after so many had supported him, wouldn't vote for him for assistant county rat-catcher.
About the only people happy to see Charlie back in Florida politics are political columnists, who appreciate the occasional comic relief. In this last thing, if in nothing else, Charlie is always reliable.
Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.