- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2009

ARCADIA, Fla. | President Obama’s visit to a massive solar power plant Tuesday was supposed to highlight the benefits of his $787 billion stimulus plan, passed soon after he took office. But one sign that the message may not be connecting: The Republican governor who in February publicly embraced both the president and the plan was nowhere to be seen this time.

In fact, Gov. Charlie Crist was noticeably absent from all of the president’s events in Florida on Monday and Tuesday. He did not appear once with Mr. Obama, and even went so far as to imply Tuesday that he had just found out that Mr. Obama was in his state.

“First I’ve heard of it,” he told local reporters of Mr. Obama’s trip. A spokeswoman for the governor later said, when pressed to clarify, that Mr. Crist “did not know the president’s exact itinerary.”

State politics is a big reason why Mr. Crist, who is running for the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez in September, was not eager to be seen with Mr. Obama. Mr. Crist is being pressed hard on his right flank in the Republican primary by former GOP House Speaker Marco Rubio, a 38-year-old son of Cuban immigrants.

One of the biggest sticks in Mr. Rubio’s arsenal is the governor’s support for the stimulus package. Mr. Crist appeared at a rally for Mr. Obama in Fort Myers when the fate of the bill hung in the balance in Congress and gave the Democratic president a now-famous bear hug.

“It’s clear President Obama’s visit has made Gov. Crist excruciatingly uncomfortable,” said Alex Burgos, a Rubio campaign spokesman. “It’s clear his support for the stimulus was misguided; it hasn’t lived up to its expectations; and now he’s trying to run away from it.”

Mr. Burgos cited a promise from the Obama administration that Florida would save or gain 218,000 jobs from some $12.2 billion in stimulus funds, and pointed to the fact that the state has lost more than 196,000 jobs this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mr. Obama’s approval rating has fallen from higher than 60 percent to below 50 percent, according to local news reports.

The White House argues that the stimulus has “cushioned the blow” of the ongoing economic recession, which has so far cost the nation 7.2 million jobs since December 2007, with 3.4 million of those jobs lost since Mr. Obama took office.

Much of the debate has centered on the administration’s claim that its massive fiscal program has not only created but also saved jobs that would have been eliminated. Critics say the White House claim in many cases cannot be verified.

But Mr. Crist himself said in July that the stimulus had saved 26,000 teachers’ jobs, calling the results “pretty incredible.” States will report fuller statistics on the impact of the stimulus on Friday.

Since the summer, Mr. Rubio has cut Mr. Crist’s lead in polls by half among Republican primary voters, cutting the governor’s lead from 29 percentage points to 15 points. Mr. Rubio is running on a platform of strict fiscal discipline, attacking the nation’s growing debt and budget deficit. He supports a balanced-budget amendment, along with line-item veto power for the president to cut wasteful spending.

Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who was born and raised in New Orleans, said that Mr. Crist’s avoidance of Mr. Obama was an example of “personal ambition and partisanship getting in the way of common sense.”

Indeed, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another Southern Republican with political ambitions, last week greeted the president at the airport in New Orleans and accompanied him to multiple events. For Mr. Jindal, appearing with a president still popular among Democrats was good for his own statewide standing.

But Mr. Jindal has also said Republicans should not be “afraid to stand up on principle and to point out our alternative solutions” when they disagree with the president.

“I don’t think we expand by becoming an imitation of the other party,” Mr. Jindal said earlier this year.

Mr. Rubio on Tuesday sounded like he was channeling Mr. Jindal. He said in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Mr. Crist is “part of a bigger change that’s happened in the Republican Party in some circles, and that is this belief that somehow we need to become more like the Democrats in order to win elections.”

The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and all of the most senior GOP senators have endorsed Mr. Crist, but a number of conservatives in the party are backing Mr. Rubio.