Politics & Policy

Falling Behind in Florida

Is a comeback in store for Charlie Crist?

Last spring, Charlie Crist seemed to have it all: popularity, a sharp tan, and a surefire ticket to Washington as Florida’s next U.S. senator. Now the Republican governor is struggling mightily to catch up with conservative Marco Rubio, a former speaker of the state house, in the Sunshine State’s GOP Senate primary. With six months until the vote, Crist spoke with National Review Online about his flagging campaign, Rubio’s rise, President Obama, and the future of Republican politics.

Crist says that Rubio, instead of “running on his record,” is “riding a wave of understandable anger, concern, and despair” — acting as nothing more than a “vessel for that anger.”

“There is a huge distinction in terms of character here,” he adds. “We have got to do some educating. That’s what this campaign is going to be — an educational opportunity to lay out and compare the record of the two of us, and to make sure that by August 24, the voters are informed.” Soon, he predicts, the “equation will change.”

THE ETHICS WARS

Crist knows whereof he speaks. On Thursday, the Miami Herald released an investigative report on Rubio’s credit-card bills from his days as speaker, alleging, with data obtained from a confidential source, that Rubio charged grocery bills, car repairs, wine purchases, and other personal expenses on state-GOP plastic.

The allegations left Rubio reeling — they constituted the first real blow to what had been a surging, near-flawless campaign. He fought back with a vengeance, calling the story a “smear” and an “appalling act of desperation” while professing his innocence: “I was as diligent as possible to ensure the party did not pay for items that were unrelated to party business,” he said in a statement. “There was no formal process provided by the party regarding personal charges.”

Crist says he does not know who leaked the data. He adds that Rubio shouldn’t play the victim, or news editor. It is the voters, he says, who will decide what’s relevant. Rubio’s tantrum over the charges, he adds, won’t make the story die; Crist calls the allegations “pretty disturbing.” With Rubio’s record now under increased scrutiny, Crist says, he won’t be coy about continuing to shine a spotlight on Rubio’s time in Tallahassee — not just on the credit-card allegations, but also on Rubio’s connection to his successor as speaker, Ray Sansom, who resigned this past week to avoid an ethics trial.

“The speaker under indictment, Sansom, was able to funnel money to a university and receive a job,” Crist says. “Speaker Rubio did the same thing with Florida International University. People need to know more about it. That’s just not what good public servants are supposed to do — trying to find a soft landing while they are in a position of power. They are supposed to serve. You’re supposed to help people, not yourself.” Crist takes pains to say that his accusations are “nothing personal,” but he adds, vaguely, that “you can really judge the character of someone when you give them power, and my opponent had it, a lot of it.”

That doesn’t mean Rubio is the only one with a skeleton or two. Crist is coming under fire for his own murky connection to former state GOP chairman Jim Greer, whom Crist handpicked, and who used the party’s finances as a personal slush fund — to the tune of a $260,000 fundraising contract plus $42,000 in expenses. Crist insists that he did not have any knowledge of the wrongdoing, and that his longtime friendship with Greer won’t damage his campaign.

“Former chairman Greer tried to reach out, tried to work hard, and tried to broaden the base of the party,” Crist says. “Were there problems? Evidently there were, or else he wouldn’t have resigned. I feel for him, but those weren’t things I did.”

POLITICAL MANEUVERS

Beyond the mudslinging, Crist says upcoming television debates will be one of the best opportunities for him to try to get some momentum. On March 28, he’ll sit down with his challenger on Fox News Sunday. He has also challenged Rubio to a debate on NBC’s Meet the Press on March 7. Rubio’s spokesman tells NRO that Rubio “would be happy to do Meet the Press — after he keeps our commitment to do Fox first.”

Crist says Rubio should stop playing games about Meet the Press. “My opponent, for all of his good rhetoric, mostly talks about standing up to President Obama,” Crist says. “Well, if he’s willing to stand up to Barack Obama but unwilling to sit down with David Gregory, one must wonder: Where did all the bravado go? What happened? David Gregory is not the president of the United States. He’s certainly a bright, talented man, but maybe Rubio is afraid that he will ask the kinds of questions the speaker does not want to respond to.”

Crist knows that his campaign’s resuscitation efforts will need to include more than jazzed-up slams on Rubio and debate zingers. Thus he says that, as another key aspect of his “voter- education” strategy, he will talk frankly about his embrace of President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package.

“I have not been avoiding the stimulus, and I am not going to avoid it,” Crist says. “Clearly, I supported it. But let’s talk about this decision, because it is important. When you’re in my shoes, you can’t look at 20,000 teachers and say you are going to let them go. I want Floridians to have jobs, to be employed, and to be with their families. We were going off into the economic abyss. You have got to understand reality, and be a pragmatic conservative in such a situation. That’s how I faced it. Most estimates say that at least 87,000 jobs were created or saved in Florida because of the stimulus. People also forget that the stimulus included $300 billion in tax cuts.”

Not everyone thinks this tack will work. It has not generated much enthusiasm for the governor among conservatives. Former governor Jeb Bush, who has remained neutral in the race, expressed growing weariness with Crist’s stimulus defense earlier this week, calling the decision “unforgivable.” Crist replies: “I don’t know why [Bush] said that but everybody has a right to their opinion.” Crist notes that he wants to “reach out” to Bush for a “very good conversation” on the subject.

Rubio “talks a lot about a picture of me embracing the president,” says Crist, but that meme is Rubio’s “one-trick pony.” What Rubio does not mention, Crist says, is how he “urged the president to go about the stimulus in a bipartisan way — not merely to have Republicans at the table, but to incorporate Republican ideas.” Obama’s stimulus, he adds, “should have been more focused on jobs, but let’s not forget how many jobs stayed in Florida, too.”

While Crist struggles to gin up support on the right, Rubio, regardless of what may be brewing in Florida newsrooms, is fast becoming a national star. Last week, he wowed the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a big-deal yearly confab in Washington. “From tea parties to the election in Massachusetts, we are witnessing the single greatest political pushback in American history,” Rubio said.

Crist says he watched Rubio’s CPAC speech — and was impressed with Rubio’s presentation, but not his message. “I think his rhetoric is very good,” Crist says, “and clearly effective, but the problem is that it is easier for him to talk the talk than to walk the walk. My opponent is an eloquent speaker and says a lot of good things that really hit at people’s heartstrings, but we have a guy in the White House right now who did the same thing. I’d hate to see a reignition of that as it relates to the Republican party. We need truthful, honest people who not only say things people want to hear, but do the things the people need.”

“I have the duty and obligation to govern, and, if you will, lead people through this storm,” Crist adds. “It is easy to sit in the cheap seats and criticize. What’s hard to do is navigate the storm — to try and keep people informed, in school, and employed.”

THE TRUE CONSERVATIVE?

Crist won’t cede the conservative mantle to Rubio. On his campaign website, Crist displays a large icon advertising the “Charlie Crist Conservative Record,” along with a cheeky spoof of Rubio’s CPAC address that mocks Rubio as a “cover boy” (he was National Review’s in September) who is “like the Great and Powerful Oz — pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Come August, Crist says, he will be able to “make the case, on my record” as the GOP’s “true” conservative.

But if he’s the “true” conservative, just how far will Crist distance himself from President Obama? So far, one of the few notable areas where he has broken with the president is on NASA policy; Crist blasted the president for cutting federal funds for Florida’s “space coast.” He tells us there are “plenty more” areas of disagreement, listing health care, spending, and taxes as his big three.

“I’m pro-life, pro-family, pro-gun, and anti-tax. I just don’t talk about it, but I’ve actually done it,” Crist says. “We have had a record number of adoptions since I’ve been governor, and we’ve brought an office of adoption into the governor’s office since I’ve been elected. I’m very proud of that fact on the pro-life front. Being pro-gun, I’ve always been endorsed by the NRA, always gotten an A+. I’m a pragmatic conservative who has tried to serve with a servant’s heart. That will come through.”

Crist sees Scott Brown’s win in January’s special Senate election in Massachusetts as a good sign for Republicans like him. “I look at Scott Brown, and the kinds of things he’s doing, as a pragmatic and practical approach I admire.” Not ceding the NR ground to Rubio, either, Crist goes on to say that Brown’s approach to politics is “something that William Buckley would be proud of.”

During his CPAC speech, in a shot at Crist, Rubio declared that the Senate “already has one Arlen Specter too many.” Specter, a longtime moderate Republican, switched parties last spring instead of facing conservative Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary. A prominent Rubio backer, Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), has published a Web ad hinting at a similar possibility in the Florida, asking: “Will Charlie switch parties?” The ad appeared on the Drudge Report and other traffic-heavy websites. Soon after, liberal bloggers like Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos sang a siren song, saying that the Democratic Party would “welcome” Crist and that a switch remains his “only hope.” So, has Crist ever considered switching parties or running as an independent?

“I have not considered it,” Crist says. “People approach me about all kinds of things, and I’ve gotten all kinds of political advice, but I’m staying on the path of a true Republican, tried and true. My record speaks for that fact. That’s why Connie Mack, the former senator, is one of my co-chairs. I’m proud to be from the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Senator Mack. These people are my heroes. I’m very comfortable here.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Crist has suffered a staggering drop in the polls. Last April, just before Rubio jumped into the race, a Quinnipiac poll showed Crist leading him 54 percent to 8 percent. In two new polls, from Rasmussen and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Crist finds himself staring up at Rubio from a deep hole — 18 points down. Another recent Rasmussen survey also shows Rubio better poised to beat Rep. Kendrick Meek, the probable Democratic nominee, come November. While Crist leads Meek by 16 points, Rubio leads him by 20.

Crist says, “The economy has an awful lot to do with the poll numbers and the anger, despair, and frustration. Those polls also show, if we can believe them — we can argue about their merits all day — that about 50 percent of people don’t know my opponent. I can assure you, they don’t know his record. That’s why I keep thinking of this campaign as a duty to Republican voters, to make this campaign an education, so they have all the facts in front of them, just like a jury would.”

While Crist appears confident, two of his key campaign staffers, sensing trouble in the swamps, have already jumped ship. Political director Pablo Diaz is resigning next week for a “new opportunity.” That news follows the departure of Sean Doughtie, a longtime Crist media consultant, who quit in January when he felt the campaign was “going in a different direction.” Unsurprisingly, Crist says the departures are not reflective of any tension within his camp.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says that Crist is not down for the count. “The ideal strategy here was to try and wound Rubio early, but they didn’t do that, so now they have a race on their hands,” she says. “Something has to change. Crist can’t keep going at this trajectory and expect a different outcome. The thing is, he has the money to wage a campaign. He just has to start doing it.”

According to a St. Petersburg Times analysis, Crist currently has about $5 million available for the primary, compared with Rubio’s $2 million. Rubio, however, is quickly closing the gap: Earlier this month, with DeMint’s help, he raised over $800,000 as part of a “money bomb” celebrating the anniversary of Crist’s Obama hug.

Ultimately, Crist says, Republicans, even those who disagree with him, will flock to his corner. They won’t be put off by the fact that he sometimes reaches across the aisle. “Ronald Reagan understood that he and Tip O’Neill wouldn’t agree on everything,” Crist says. “We need that bipartisan spirit. And like Jack Kemp, when it comes to my own party, I believe in a big-tent philosophy. That’s my approach.”

With six months to go, Crist says time is on his side. Whether primary voters will buy Crist as the race’s “real deal” conservative is debatable. It may come down to whom GOP voters detest more: a former speaker who expensed his $7.09 Chick-fil-A lunch or a governor who supported the president’s $787 billion stimulus package.

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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