- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Democrats are going after Gov. Charlie Crist, attacking the likely Republican candidate for the Senate as a quitter in tough fiscal times despite his support for President Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

The Florida fight is part of an emerging political dynamic that could put the Obama White House in a bind. The president praises bipartisan cooperation with Republicans such as Mr. Crist and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, while promising to campaign for new Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter even if he’s challenged in a primary.

As Mr. Obama’s party gears up to elect more Democrats in 2010, the White House has attempted to keep the president above the partisan fray, declining to comment on a new attack ad targeting Mr. Crist. However, Mr. Obama will be increasing his political profile to campaign for Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and raising money for the Democratic congressional campaign committees.

Both Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. are expected to campaign for Mr. Specter, who switched parties last week, even as liberals urge a Specter primary challenge for fear he will not be a “reliable” Democrat.

Still, the open Senate seat in Florida, held by retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, looks to be among the most competitive next year.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has a new ad detailing Florida’s budget problems, warning it “could mean cuts” to key services. The ad takes direct aim at Mr. Crist, who is mulling a run for the Senate seat instead of seeking a second term in 2010.

“Instead of working to fix it, Charlie Crist wants to quit to go to Washington,” a narrator says. “Crist enjoys being governor when he attends basketball games and Super Bowl activities and when he takes over 60 days off with no schedule. But now the job’s getting tough and Crist wants out, leaving Floridians with the mess.”

That’s a stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s embrace of Mr. Crist this year as the Republican embraced the president’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan that all but three congressional Republicans opposed.

“Governor Crist shares my conviction that creating jobs and turning this economy around is a mission that transcends party,” Mr. Obama said when the two appeared together at a February town-hall meeting in Fort Myers, Fla. “When the town is burning, you don’t check party labels. Everybody needs to grab a hose, and that’s what Charlie Crist is doing right here today.”

Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the Democrats’ ad shows the party is out of step with Mr. Obama.

“It seems odd, like the [campaign] committee isn’t listening to the party leader,” he said. “Not only is it confusing, it is a slap in the face to their own party and their own president.”

Many Republicans weren’t happy with Mr. Crist when he backed Mr. Obama’s plan, though his overall Florida job approval rating is 66 percent.

Democrats counter that Mr. Crist deserves the attacks because he actively campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in the key battleground state in 2008. Mr. Obama ultimately carried the state.

“Considering the budget mess he made in Florida, Governor Crist would have been nuts to turn down the stimulus. If anything, his support for it was a tacit admission of his failures as governor and hardly qualifies him for a pass from Democrats,” said Phil Singer, a Democratic strategist who once worked for the DSCC.

He said it was unlikely Mr. Crist would back the broader Democratic agenda, adding, “Democrats should keep the pressure on and make sure he knows he’s going to have to defend his record every second of every day if he runs for the Senate.”

Democratic consultant James Boyce agreed.

“If Governor Crist had actually crossed party lines last fall, it would be a different story, but turning Florida blue in 2008 was key, [and] keeping it blue in 2010 and 2012 will be equally important,” Mr. Boyce said.

Mr. Crist’s communications director, Erin Isaac, declined to comment on the DSCC ad, saying only that the governor is focused on balancing the state’s budget.

“The governor fully supports the federal stimulus package,” she said. “It’s not perfect, nothing ever is, but these are extraordinary times, and we are working on passing our budget, and the federal stimulus dollars have had a positive impact to protect education and the neediest Floridians.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee called the ad desperate and noted the governor’s high approval ratings.

A DSCC spokesman made no apologies for the seemingly mixed messages.

“Charlie Crist, while never one to miss a good photo op, has a thin and abysmal record as governor — and we’re going to use that record should he decide to run for Senate,” DSCC communications director Eric Schultz said. “If he’s going to cut and run on the problems he helped create in his own state, Floridians ought to know his readiness to quit when things get tough.”

In another example, national Democrats say Republican Sen. Norm Coleman should “do the right thing and concede” in his still-unresolved Minnesota Senate race with Democrat Al Franken. The Democratic National Committee even crafted an ad encouraging Mr. Coleman, who trailed in the final recount, to give up the fight.

The Obama White House, by contrast, has avoided calling on Mr. Coleman to step aside, saying the legal process should work itself out.

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