Florida’s in spotlight with open Senate seat

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Heads up, political junkies — Florida’s back. With an open Senate seat, a possible open governor’s spot and a new Cuba policy from the White House, the home of the hanging chad is once again pushing itself into the political limelight as the 2010 election season gears up.

Soon after Republican Sen. Mel Martinez announced in December that he would step down in January 2011 after one term, an intriguing list of possible replacements emerged, with the state’s top politician, the popular Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, leading the way.

“Certainly if he wants to [run], the ground has been laid, there’s no question about it,” said Susan A. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “At this point, I think it would be a bigger shock if he doesn’t run than if he does.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows Mr. Crist with a sky-high approval rating of 66 percent, including an astounding 66 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independent voters giving the governor a thumbs up.

The numbers are all the most impressive given the backdrop of a state facing a serious budget shortfall and possible spending cuts for schools and social services.

“There may be some GOP activists who think Governor Charlie Crist isn’t conservative enough, but they aren’t striking a chord around the state,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Across America, an awful lot of governors are seeing their approval ratings dip as the recession requires higher taxes and cuts in government programs, but ‘Teflon Charlie’ keeps chugging along with numbers that most of his fellow governors would die for.”

Mr. Crist publicly has been coy about his intentions to seek a move to Washington. Many political observers say he wouldn’t dare declare his Senate candidacy until the Florida Legislature has finished hammering out a budget — a prospect that could extend well beyond the body’s scheduled May adjournment.

“When you’re running at the kind of poll numbers that he is … waiting longer is not a liability to you; it’s a liability to those who want to challenge you,” Ms. MacManus said.

Mr. Crist isn’t the only high-profile candidate mulling a run at Mr. Martinez’s seat. Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who stepped down in December because of term limits, last month launched an official exploratory committee to test the waters. The 37-year-old, who is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, said he raised an impressive $250,000 in less than a month.

“We’ve been encouraged by people’s willingness not only to sign up [on the committee’s Web site] but also to give in these tough economic times, so it has kind of propelled us,” said Mr. Rubio, who was in the District last week to give a speech at George Washington University.

A Crist or Rubio candidacy would face challenges in retaining the Senate seat for their party, as their once-solid red state has turned blue-ish, with President Obama narrowly winning the state in the November election. The Republican primary winner could face a strong Democratic opponent in Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, who has declared his candidacy for the Martinez seat and already has a campaign war chest in excess of $1.6 million.

Mr. Rubio said his decision to run will not be tethered to whether or not Mr. Crist enters the race, a point with which many Florida political analysts agree, given that Mr. Rubio is politically and socially much closer to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush than to Mr. Crist. The former speaker also would appeal to the state’s staunchly conservative Republicans — the only electoral Achilles heal for the moderate current governor.

Mr. Rubio, a Miami native whose parents hail from Cuba, is among a chorus of Cuban-American political figures who have criticized Mr. Obama for relaxing restrictions for Cuban-Americans on travel and family remittances to the communist nation.

“To me, that whole issue of travel to Cuba and all that is irrelevant to bringing about freedom and democracy [to Cuba] — that’s what I’m interested in,” Mr. Rubio said “And the measures taken [last week do] nothing to bring that about — nothing to speed that process up.”

South Florida Republican Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart — brothers who have been mentioned as possible, though not probable, candidates for the Martinez seat — in a joint statement last week called Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy a “serious mistake” that will “embolden” Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul Castro, who have had a 50-year dictatorship run.

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