When 2008 dawned the Democratic presidential nomination was Hillary Clinton's to lose. But no one expected her to. Likewise, when 2009 got underway the Republican nomination for the Florida U.S. Senate seat the unenthusiastic Mel Martinez was giving up was moderate governor Charlie Crist's to lose. In fact, Crist looked like more of a lock last year than the nation's ex-wife had the year before.
And why not? Hardly anyone outside of his Miami district knew anything about the conservative former speaker of the Florida House, Marco Rubio, Crist's opponent for the Senate nomination. And Crist, who had enjoyed high approval ratings before he "grew in office" after becoming governor, was considered an unbeatable political heavyweight (odd expression for a thin guy who says he only eats one meal a day and looks it, but I'm just reporting). Most political observers thought Rubio would hop out of the Senate race and run for governor when Crist announced for the Senate. When Rubio stayed in, political wise men called it a kamikaze mission. Crist was supposed to win this one on cruise-control.
So much for political wisdom. And perhaps "political observers" have too much time on their hands. Yesterday Quinnipiac released a poll showing Rubio leading Crist in the race by 47-44, the first lead for Rubio since Senate matchups began last February. The poll included 673 registered Republic voters and was conducted January 20-24. It has a margin of error of 3.8 percent.
The poll shows Rubio beating Crist on the questions of trust, values, and conservative credentials. This should not surprise anyone. Rubio has run a solid and energetic retail campaign based on such conservative values as limited government, trust in the markets over government control, fiscal conservatism, the centrality of the family, a strong foreign policy, and all-around vigorous opposition to the leftward lurch of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. Every indication is this is the kind of approach Florida voters are looking for this year.
Crist, on the other hand, has taken political positions all over the map since he's been governor, some of them distinctly un-conservative. Voters noticed, including Republicans who supported Crist during his conservative campaign for governor in 2006. When Crist's leftish stands proved unpopular -- such as supporting President Obama's $787 billion "stimulus" slush fund before it was adopted and supporting cap and trade -- Crist switched positions and claimed he had never supported these unpopular things in the first place.
It doesn't take a Joe Wilson to parse what this approach to issue politics amounts to. Thus Crist's problems with trust, values, and conservative credentials. A problem he will have a lot of trouble turning around. Once the public spots a politician as an opportunist and a chameleon, it's very difficult to shake this rep. This is happening to Crist now.
The poll also shows either Rubio or Crist ahead of the likely Democratic candidate for the Senate seat, Miami Congressman Kendrick Meek, by about 10 points. A companion poll of 1,618 Florida votes shows that 45 percent of Florida voters approve of the job Barack Obama is doing as president. Another 49 percent disapprove. This is a sharp drop-off for the president from last February when 64 percent of Floridians told Quinnipiac they approved of what our rookie president was doing with only 23 percent disapproving.
Crist and Obama seem to be in a flat spin together. Last February only six percent of voters liked Rubio for the Senate seat. As recently as last August Crist led Rubio by 55 to 26 percent. See above re solid conservative campaign.
It may well be that the Quinnipiac poll actually undercounts Rubio's support as the poll contracted registered Republicans rather than likely primary voters. Rubio has enjoyed overwhelming support among those most active in the party, the kind of people who show up to vote in Florida's closed primaries. There have been 16 straw polls taken by Florida Republican organizations across the state, most county executive committees. Rubio has won them all by lopsided margins.
There's almost seven months to go before the August 24 primary, so they're not icing down the champagne at Rubio campaign headquarters yet. Rubio can stumble on the campaign trail. Crist can use his considerable campaign financial war-chest to paint Rubio in an unfavorable light. Crist might convince Floridians he's the true conservative in the race.
But these things will be difficult to do. Crist has tried criticizing the Obama administration for spending too much. But Floridians remember Crist whooping up Obama's slush fund on stage with Obama last February and his hectoring members of Congress to go along with the spending plan he's now criticizing. They're not taking him seriously. Crist has tried picking at Rubio's conservative armor, but nothing has taken so far.
Even Crist's large advantage in campaign funds is eroding. The Rubio campaign reported collecting $1.75 million in the quarter ending December 31, giving the campaign about $2 million on hand. Crist originally was the establishment candidate, and of course he enjoys certain fund-raising advantage because he's a sitting governor. But as the poll numbers change, and the grass-roots enthusiasm for Rubio becomes more undeniable, it becomes more difficult for Crist to raise money and easier for Rubio.
After the spring session of the Florida Legislature concludes in early May, Crist in effect becomes a lame duck. Look for money and individual support to come Rubio's way when there's no longer any reason to keep Governor Crist happy.
Events in Massachusetts and Florida are showing that in 2010 a solid conservative message, well delivered, is a lot more helpful than being the establishment's candidate. On the Republican side, establishment candidates next fall may well be left to sulk alone in their big tents.