- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2010

It’s funny how Florida Gov. Charlie Crist didn’t decide the system was broken until it broke under him. On Thursday, Mr. Crist announced he would run for the U.S. Senate as an independent after squandering a 30-point lead in the Republican primary. His departure in effect conceded the nomination to Marco Rubio. Mr. Crist apparently is convinced that the Senate desperately needs him, though it’s an open question why this is, especially among Floridians who know him best.

Mr. Crist’s Thursday speech was loaded with platitudes designed to appeal to the same reformist spirit of the times that denied him the Republican nomination. Hearing his insurgency-themed spiel, one would never guess he was a sitting governor and a political insider. It’s hopeless and hapless for Mr. Crist to attempt to ride the populist wave. Mr. Rubio is the more natural reform candidate, which explains why Mr. Crist has been reduced to this desperation move in the first place.

Mr. Crist first will have to fend off charges of opportunism and disloyalty. A month ago on Fox News, the governor pledged he only would run as a Republican. That promise is now inoperable, and in the process, Mr. Crist has angered the very party establishment of which he was a creature. This was a gift to Mr. Rubio because former Crist supporters can back the party nominee without reservation in rejection of the turncoat. Mr. Crist also will have to contend with demands from angry Republican campaign contributors who want their money back, much of which probably will wind up in Mr. Rubio’s coffers - assuming Mr. Crist is honest enough to return it.

It’s difficult to understand who Mr. Crist thinks will be the base on which to build his campaign. He is a popular governor, but if that had been enough, he would have led in the Republican race. Perhaps he believes the media narrative that he’s a moderate Republican driven out of the party by far-right crazies. The race in Florida is viewed as a microcosm of a national schism in the Grand Old Party between fanatical, litmus-testing Tea Partiers and more reasonable old-school Republicans. The trouble with that thesis is that what the media calls “far right” is much closer to the mainstream than the pundits are, and many unaffiliated voters aren’t moderates. According to an April 12 New York Times/CBS News poll, only about half of self-identified members of the Tea Party movement claimed to be Republicans, with 36 percent calling themselves independent. There are about as many Tea Partiers nationwide as there are self-identified liberals.

Recent polls don’t give Mr. Crist reason for confidence. Pollster.com poll averages show that Mr. Crist, Mr. Rubio and Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek were in a virtual dead heat in November. Now Mr. Meek trails at 23.1 percent and falling, Mr. Crist is sagging at 27.8 percent, and Mr. Rubio is at 36 percent and rising. Public Policy Polling found Mr. Crist was more likely to pull votes from Mr. Meek than Mr. Rubio, and Mr. Crist also has higher favorability ratings than Mr. Meek among Democrats. This may be one reason why Newsweek’s Howard Fineman suggested that Mr. Crist’s best move would be to run as a Democrat. The same poll showed Mr. Crist could only count on 18 percent Republican support, which is not nearly enough to sink Mr. Rubio.

The election is six months away, which is an eternity in American politics. It’s too early to make predictions, but as things stand, Mr. Crist appears to have let his ego get the best of him. The governor could have been loyal to the party that put him in power, conceded the race to Mr. Rubio and delayed his Senate run until 2012, when he would have enjoyed Republican Party support and Sen. Rubio’s help to win Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat. That would have been the honorable and smart thing to do. Apparently it’s not the Crist thing to do.