TAMPA -- Florida Governor Charlie Crist didn't have as bad a week as Dede Scozzafava, the up-state New York RINO who pulled out of the congressional race there because of increasing pressure from the conservative independent candidate and his supporters. But things are steadily unraveling for Crist, the Florida RINO who wants to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 against conservative former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio.
Crist's problems aren't confined to polls, though a new Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll indicates Floridians rate Crist's performance as governor at the lowest level in the 34 months he's been in office. Just 42 percent of 600 respondents in a telephone poll conducted Oct. 25-28 rated Crist's performance as good to excellent, while 51 percent rated Crist fair to poor. Not terrible, but for much of Crist's first two years in office he enjoyed approval ratings in the sixties.
Even these mostly less-than-enthusiastic Floridians have a more charitable take on Crist than Reihan Salam, a political columnist for Forbes magazine who suggested last week that Crist may be "America's worst governor." Salam concedes that Crist is a gifted politician. But in discussing Crist's actual performance Salam's piece is full of expressions such as "opportunist," and "light-weight."
Salam gigs Crist for various forms of "free-lunchism," but especially for being so wildly enthusiastic about president Obama's stimulus slush fund. He quotes the giddy way Crist spoke to the Miami Herald about Obama's deficit-ballooning scam just a few months ago: "I think it's fantastic. Are you kidding me? We don't have to raise taxes…. We might be able to cut property taxes some more. We have more money for education, so we can increase per-student spending. We can spend more money on our roads and infrastructure. We can provide health care for our people. I mean it's remarkable."
Those comments are indeed remarkable. How many conservative Republicans are nearly so enthusiastic about the absolute healing powers of "free" money from Washington? No one but Obama fundamentalists believes the comically-specific reports, coming out of Washington and Tallahassee, on how many jobs the stimulus slush fund has supposedly created or saved.
Salam points out that Crist wanted the Florida Legislature to rely on non-recurring federal slush funds for about 12 percent of Florida's budget. When the legislature passed a budget containing some unpopular spending cuts, Crist vetoed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of them. The final result was a budget containing $2.2 billion in new state taxes and fees. After all this Crist has tried to paint himself in speeches and political ads as a fiscal conservative, a move that has gotten the horse-laugh it deserves in Florida political circles and from much of the Florida media.
The Forbes piece got wide play across Florida, where several publications took up the criticism, pointing out that relying on short-term manna from Washington to take care of recurring expenses is remarkably similar to what that Italian guy, Ponzi, got into so much trouble over.
We already knew that George Will has a couple of quid on Rubio in the primary. In a column a few weeks back he outlined why the conservative Rubio should and would beat the populist chameleon Crist. On ABC's This Week Sunday Will reiterated his prediction that Rubio would win the nomination and defeat the Democrat in the general, supporting his argument by pointing to the increasing number of people who identify themselves as conservatives, the decreasing inclination of Republicans to support candidates who aren't conservative, and the rightward shift of independents.
The week was not without comedy. Crist has taken so much flak from conservatives about embracing Obama's slush fund, and Obama himself, back when Obama's popularity was in the stratosphere, that he now avoids the less-appealing Obama like Dracula avoids sunlight and the True Cross.
In February, when Obama came to Florida to whoop up his $787 billion goody-bag, Crist canceled a cabinet meeting to appear with Obama in Ft. Myers. Crist didn't mince words that day: "It's important that we pass the stimulus package," he said while standing on a stage with Obama in Ft. Myers. "We need to do it in a bipartisan way." Crist said the stimulus would "re-ignite our economy," as the members of the crowd, who had come to see Obama, not Crist, shouted, "Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!"
Last week, with a considerably less popular Obama in Florida for two days, Crist told reporters he didn't even know Obama was in the state when asked why he wasn't playing Welcome Wagon again. "Where was he?" Crist asked bemused reporters. "First I've heard of it." Clarifying later, in an attempt to hold down the laughing, Crist allowed that he really knew the president was in Florida. He just didn't know his schedule. Nobody believed him.
Crist's avoidance of Obama's visit to the opening of a solar energy plant in Arcadia is particularly noteworthy, as Crist has whooped up alternative energy sources, going so far as trying to get the Florida Legislature to oblige Florida utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity using "renewable" fuels, and calling for a cap and trade program. This underlines what Charlie observers have long known, and what more and more Floridians are figuring out (see poll numbers above), that Crist only cares about and backs up the policies he's espoused when the politics are right.
In addition to the drollery above, the campaign took on a bit of the air of fraternity hi-jinks when an amateur-hour website called TheTruthAboutRubio.com popped up and was quickly traced to a Crist supporter (who claims he was out of town that weekend, doesn't know who Rubio is, and the dog ate his homework). The site is full of sophomoric anti-Rubio material, making it reasonable to wonder if someone in Crist's shop studied political campaigning on a Donald Segretti scholarship. If this is the best contemporary dirty-tricksters can come up with, they should probably limit themselves to ordering pizzas (no anchovies, please) and sending them to Rubio headquarters.
There's no cheering or high-fiving in Rubio's campaign over these developments (at least, they say there isn't). Rubio continues his heavy schedule of campaigning across Florida on conservatives themes. He'll probably take a few minutes this evening to check the returns from New York 23. A victory there by the conservative would be more support for Rubio oft-repeated campaign phrases, "We don't need two Democratic parties," and "Conservatives don't need to apologize for or abandon their principles and beliefs in order to win elections."
Regardless of the results from the upper reaches of New York -- plenty of difference between a congressional district that touches on Lake Champlain and a state that borders the Gulf of Mexico -- Rubio will remain the candidate who inspires Florida's conservative Republican primary voters. And a recent Rasmussen poll shows that Rubio's conservatism is apparently not too astringent for the general, as he beats the likely Democratic candidate, South Florida Congressman Kendrick Meek, by three points more than Crist does.
For those paying attention to this race -- and it has gotten a lot of attention as a chastened, out-of-office Republican Party tries to decide what it wants to be when it grows up -- the question now is, what will Crist and his campaign do to stop the bleeding? Crist was an overwhelming favorite when he entered the campaign. He adopted and has consistently followed an above-it-all approach, ignoring Rubio. Now that there's a real race on, this approach will doubtless have to be revised. No one knows yet what Crist will do next. But he has a lot of money to do it with.
Don't touch that dial.