Politics & Policy

Early Returns from Florida

It’s an uphill climb for Republicans, but they have a chance — several chances, in fact.

Jacksonville – Despite media impressions to the contrary, the polls have not yet closed here in Florida. Yes, Barack Obama is leading and, yes, Bill Nelson is leading, but indulge, if you would, the contrarian view that the election will not be decided until, oh, November 6.

Among the salient developments of recent weeks are these:

GOTV – It’s clear now that 2012 will be a turnout election in Florida. It’s that close. Obama, who has been a remarkably inept president, remains a brilliant candidate. His get-out-the-vote effort is so comprehensively organized that the postmortem conferences at the JFK School will be astonished to learn the details of his micro-targeting by phone, e-mail, and social media. It’s an unprecedentedly sophisticated operation, long in the making and nowhere reported in the press. The GOP has responded by tightening up on voter eligibility (hanging tough in the face of “racism” charges) and by wiring the base with a fine-grid turnout initiative. The Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) seems on track for a solid final-72-hours effort. (The waters have been muddied a bit this week by reports of GOP registration fraud, allegedly committed by an RNC-recommended signature collector. The Democrats have tried to inflate molehill into mountain, of course, but the RPOF fired the offending firm immediately, and the damage seems to have been contained.)

Connie Mack – Many observers, your correspondent among them, thought that Mack IV, the GOP Senate candidate, might be carrying more baggage than he can stow easily in the overhead compartment. Senator Bill Nelson apparently thought so, too, and opened the post-convention phase of his campaign with a rat-a-tat TV barrage against Mack and his young-and-irresponsible ways. Nelson’s no wimp. It was an old-school beatdown. But let it be said that Mack took the punch with some grace, buckled down, and so far has performed both diligently and well on the stump. Mack continues to run a few points behind Romney — the latter has connected with the GOP base better than the former — but Nelson has not — repeat, not — put the seat out of reach.

The Risen Crist — It would be tempting to say that Charlie Crist is back, but, in truth, he never really went away. After he left the governorship in early 2011, Crist became Florida’s best-known slip-and-fall lawyer, appearing on highway billboards across the state urging motorists to do what’s right for the children. (Or something to that effect. I’m not quite sure. Crist’s vapidities will one day burn a hole through the ozone layer.) Two years ago, Crist ran for the Senate, first as a Republican and then as an independent. Next year, it is widely speculated, he will start running for governor as a Democrat. He assures supporters that this is exactly the kind of bipartisan (multipartisan? faux-partisan?) spirit voters have been hungering for. I have not personally detected a groundswell of this kind, but in Cristland anything can seem possible. And, in fairness, it should be conceded that Charlie Crist is above party politics. He has no permanent friends in politics, only a devotion to special interests: in particular, to those of the teachers’ unions and the tort lawyers. (It took me, then a Florida newbie, a few months to figure out that when Charlie Crist talks “tort reform” he means changes that will augment the power and fatten the wallets of the tort bar.) Party affiliation aside, Crist has “told friends,” a group that certainly and perhaps exclusively includes contacts in the Tampa Bay Times newsroom, that his 2014 effort will be a “reform” campaign, which pronouncement calls to mind the timeless wisdom of Roscoe Conkling, the machine pol’s machine pol: “When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he ignored the enormous possibilities of the word ‘reform.’”

The Honorable James Greer — Sanity has prevailed, and the trial of former RPOF chairman Greer, on whose part multiple felonies have been alleged, has been postponed until late November. The Lord be praise.

Bench Strength — One of the reasons why Charlie Crist was free to range unimpeded across the GOP landscape in 2010 — from governor to senator and then back to governor — is that the party had no second string, no up-and-comers. When Jeb Bush departed the governorship in 2007, much of the party talent, some of the money, and all of the ideological momentum went with him. What was left in the GOP cupboard was Charlie Crist and a few cans of hairspray. A week may or may not be a lifetime in politics, as they say, but on the evidence displayed here, a biennium is a full generation. Look at the party’s lineup today. The most popular figure in the state is Senator Marco Rubio. Connie Mack may be in the process of earning voter esteem and party trust. The state’s chief financial officer, Jeff Atwater, seems eager for bigger things, as does Agriculture Commissioner (and former congressman) Adam Putnam. Depending on what happens on November 6, three more contenders could soon thrust themselves into statewide consideration: Ron DeSantis, who seems poised to take the new 6th CD seat in north Florida; Lenny Curry, the RPOF chairman, who is in charge of the 2012 ground game; and Will Weatherford, the speaker-designate of the state House. All of these men are conservative, mediagenic, and young. (Only Atwater, at 54, is over 45.) As baseball managers down here are wont to say after a spring-training workout, I like our chances next season.

The Big Enchilada — At the risk of expulsion from the pundits’ union, I have to say that the pre-debate polls seemed to have it just about right. Obama holds a small lead, but he has been unable to create separation between himself and Romney. From this point forward, it will play out on the ground as GOP passion versus the Obama machine. (As a Democratic friend of mine grumbles about the 47 percenters, “The least they can do is vote, fer chrissakes.”) My sense of it? Romney should win. Obama’s war of choice in Afghanistan is going south, his Mideast policy is up in smoke, the economy is in the dumpster, and the president seems fiscally paralyzed, watching numbly as the debt continues to mount. I fear the machine, but I’m an optimist, if an optimist can be defined as one who thinks that the future is uncertain.

— Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to National Review.

Neal B. FreemanNeal Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.


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