JACKSONVILLE — I don’t mean to break the rhythm of Brother Thornberry’s magnificent rant elsewhere on this site, but the GOP Senate race here in Florida has entered a new and volatile stage. Former Speaker of the House Marco Rubio has opened up a 30-point lead. The primary is more than five months away. Rubio’s opponent, Governor Charlie Crist, still has $8 million in the bank.
Thus the GOP problem. It would not be a shock to students of the human condition if the Governor, who once led this race by more than 40 points, were to crank up a retaliatory strike of biblical ferocity. Eight million dollars of negative ads would probably not be enough to nominate Crist, but it’s probably enough to take down Rubio. Heck, in a state with no mega-media market, $8 million could take down Desmond Tutu, driving him down in the polls to somewhere between Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright.
A few conservatives spent some time with the Governor this past week. Their message was simple: Please don’t, Charlie. Please don’t atomize a promising young Republican, who, if he emerges from this primary tested but unscathed, can hold the seat for the party and be a forceful voice for conservative change in Washington.
How did these supplicants do? We won’t know for a few weeks, but the early returns are not encouraging. The Governor’s Lincoln Day speech in Nassau County Friday evening was a classic case of Charlie being Charlie. (Nassau County, I should explain, has few loose ends, politically speaking. The GOP carried the county 72-28 for McCain-Palin in 2008. That was a big Democratic year. The GOP will do better next time. Together with its neighbor to the south, Duval, the two counties take biennial responsibility for overtaking the Democratic majority likely to materialize across the rest of the state.) The Governor, a man of no fixed ideological address, gave the most rightwing speech this reporter has heard in several decades of full political immersion. Crist began steadily enough by paying tribute to his mentor, Connie Mack, and then to his favorite President, Ronald Reagan. Losing control of the vehicle, he then sped through the yellow light and professed his love for Sarah Palin, an attachment previously well disguised. He went on to pronounce himself the biggest tax cutter in history and characterize the philosophical gyroscope guiding his every move as: “less government, more freedom.” He then wrapped his argument to the skeptical jury by noting, with dramatic pause, that his name in its original Greek form means, “disciple of Christ.” To those of us even casually acquainted with his record, Charlie seemed to be claiming to have been born again. Again.
About the proximate question — the Senate race — the Governor skated around and around but came dangerously close to a patch of thin ice. He asserted that, when contemplating the Senate race, he could have done the easy and popular thing and run for re-election as Governor. If he had attempted this Nixonian trope in New York or Chicago, he might have faced a rousing chorus of “Do it! Do it! Do the easy and popular thing!” Here in gracious, Live Oak-framed Nassau County, there was only wistful silence. The problem, as many Republicans see it, is that Charlie has left himself no graceful way to back down from his ill-conceived Senate campaign. The race to succeed him as Governor is already in full swing, with the presumptive GOP candidate running competitively in the polls. The same goes for the attorney general slot, which Charlie himself once occupied under former Governor Jeb Bush. It’s a challenge for Charlie, to be sure, perhaps more theatrical than structural. How does he get off stage? The hope, threadbare as it may be, is that nothing in Charlie’s campaign will so become him as the leaving of it.