Florida’s Crist, once a golden boy, sees luster fade

Former GOP star eclipsed?

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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a rising “rock star” in the Republican Party only two years ago, may now be singing his political swan song, thanks to a young upstart who dared challenge the career politician’s once-solid Senate run.

Republican Marco Rubio’s support in the polls has jumped since the Florida primary elections last month, breaking open a once-tight race against the Republican turned independent Mr. Crist and the Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek.

“Barring some unforeseen big anvil that hits Rubio and Meek … it’s looking like the race is starting to get out of reach” for Mr. Crist, said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor.

Mr. Rubio “is kind of cruising along right now, just trying not to screw up and basically just trying to surf the Republican/conservative/tea party tide. If he can do that, that’s probably enough.”

A poll released Saturday showed Mr. Rubio with 40 percent of voter support, comfortably leading Mr. Crist, with 28 percent, and Mr. Meek, with 23 percent. The Mason-Dixon Polling and Research survey of 625 registered voters shows 9 percent of voters are undecided. Other polls taken this month have shown Mr. Rubio breaking out to a double-digit lead.

As late as July, Mr. Crist - who left the Republican Party in April after polling showed him falling behind Mr. Rubio by double-digit margins in the primary race - held leads over his rivals in several nonpartisan surveys.

The shift in the polls is the result of a host of circumstances involving all three campaigns, political analysts say.

Mr. Rubio - the dapper 39-year-old former Florida House speaker and son of Cuban immigrants - has been pushing all the right campaign buttons. Unlike other “outsider” candidates this year, he has built a solid coalition that includes socially conservative “tea party” supporters, mainstream Republicans and party leaders.

“If you’re a Republican voter in the state who may have liked Charlie Crist and still likes some of his policies, the question is, ‘Is Charlie Crist leaning too far to the left?’ ” said University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith. “And Marco Rubio wisely has moved more toward the center on some of these issues, leaving hard-right Republicans nowhere else to go” but for him.

While not shunning the tea party, Mr. Rubio hasn’t overtly associated himself with the movement, either.

Asked Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” whether he considered himself a tea party candidate, the Miami lawyer said that to think that way would be a “fundamental misunderstanding of what the tea party movement is.”

“I think the biggest mistake being made by those who follow politics is they’re trying to understand what’s happening across our country through a traditional political lens, how you would view the Republican Party or the Democratic Party,” he said.

Mr. Rubio said both major political parties share blame for the nation’s problems.

“Republicans had a majority in Washington for the better part of 10 to 12 years, and they didn’t fulfill some of the promises they had made in ‘94 when they were elected, you know - things like a balanced-budget amendment, things like banning earmarks, things like term limits,” he said.

Despite Mr. Rubio’s self-portrayal as an outside reformer, his background as a longtime state politician means he can’t rely solely on tea party support, Mr. Smith said.

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