- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2010

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.

“He is an establishment figure, being in the [Florida] House for eight years and being speaker, so he doesn’t have that outsider street cred that people like [Delaware Republican Senate nominee] Christine O’Donnell or [Republican Senate nominee Joe] Miller out in Alaska have,” Mr. Smith said.

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor, said that while mainstream Republican voters are solidly behind Mr. Rubio, he isn’t in lockstep with the party.

“He represents diversity, he represents the younger generation of Republicans and Cubans - the ethnic side of [the party],” Ms. MacManus said. “Being a Cuban from South Florida doesn’t make you an insider, no matter what.”

The unusual dynamics of the three-way race also have played to Mr. Rubio’s advantage.

Republican and Democratic voters once curious about Mr. Crist’s independent status now are shifting support back to their parties’ nominees. Also not helping the governor is a slumping state economy with an unemployment rate higher than the national average.

Mr. Crist also has been criticized for changing his positions on issues, including newfound support for gay rights.

Although the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill this year gave the governor a politically advantageous bully pulpit, the boost faded as quickly as the oil slicks did.

But Mr. Crist’s biggest and increasingly elusive challenge has been to hold on to as much of his former Republican base as possible while wooing Democratic voters away from Mr. Meek.

Charlie Crist has to figure out how to carve out this wide swath in the middle, and he hasn’t done so yet,” Mr. Smith said.

With the Meek campaign showing no signs of letting up its attack on the governor, Mr. Crist is forced to fight on two fronts.

Meek has a sense of urgency, and rightfully so, to show that he can pull back some of that Democratic vote from Crist, to show that it really should be a race between Meek and Rubio,” Ms. MacManus said. “The real story is that Crist’s erosion has come from Meek, not from Rubio.”

Running as an independent also has denied Mr. Crist the opportunity of tapping into party resources - a crucial advantage during a general election cycle.

Charlie is kind of standing out there all alone,” said April Schiff, a Florida Republican strategist, who added that the Crist campaign seems to lack experienced workers.

“I think some of his higher people have experience, but I’m not sure a lot of his everyday staff has a lot of experience,” she said. “You can’t run for a statewide office without some serious experience behind him.”

Despite Mr. Rubio’s recent campaign success, not all pollsters and analysts are ready to anoint him the winner.

Mr. Crist has begun running more aggressive television advertisements against his Republican rival, and a controversy over questionable use of a Republican Party credit card continues to dog Mr. Rubio.

Jennifer E. Duffy, who monitors Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, lists the race as a “tossup.”

“Let’s see if that [Rubio] lead is real or can be chipped away yet,” Ms. Duffy said. “I just don’t think we know yet.”