- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Conservatives have long knives out for Gov. Charlie Crist. While the political establishment in Tallahassee, Fla., and Washington is fully supporting incumbent Mr. Crist for Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat over upstart rising star Marco Rubio, the clear conservative choice is emerging.

Mr. Crist was recruited to run and immediately endorsed by the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, led by Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Although this support smacks of party bosses discouraging competition, Mr. Cornyn promised on Nov. 4 that his campaign committee would not spend one dollar in the Florida primary.

On paper, Mr. Crist is a strong candidate. He’s a legendary fundraiser, has statewide name identification, resources and gravitas - all major advantages. But inspection reveals Mr. Crist’s vulnerabilities.

Conservative fears about Mr. Crist were confirmed Feb. 10 when he skipped a Cabinet meeting to famously hug President Obama at a Fort Myers rally for the federal stimulus legislation, saying, “We know that it’s important that we pass a stimulus package.” Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Feb. 22, Mr. Crist said, “Certainly this stimulus package, about $12.2 billion to Florida, will help Florida an awful lot.” On Nov. 5 on CNN, Mr. Crist incredibly claimed that he “never endorsed the stimulus.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Crist’s point man on the stimulus, Don Winstead, painstakingly tried to convince Florida lawmakers that the 29,000 Florida jobs “saved or created” by the bill so far was actually 64,300, employing tortured logic and self-defining “spin-off jobs.”

Apart from the stimulus, Mr. Crist is moderate on other key conservative issues. After campaigning as a “Jeb Bush” Republican, he has governed as a liberal by signing legislation to create a statewide cap-and-trade system in Florida, increasing taxes and fees on tobacco products, motor vehicle services and court fees, only recently reversing his former opposition to offshore drilling, refusing to say abortion should be illegal (he has described himself as both “pro choice” and “pro life”), bucking Jeb Bush and supporting then-state Sen. Kendrick B. Meek’s expensive mandate to reduce class sizes, supporting gay civil unions and backing Sen. Mel Martinez’s amnesty immigration bill. Mr. Crist even pushed to restore voting rights for some 750,000 ex-felons in Florida.

Consider this chilling example of selfishness and arrogance: Mr. Crist has injected himself into the politics of an independent regulatory agency, clumsily attempting to stack the deck to overturn a likely agency decision with which he disagreed. Mr. Crist chose to fire two sitting members of the Public Service Commission before they could rule on two rate proposals that would strengthen the state’s energy infrastructure, mostly for petty and political reasons.

But the message was crystal clear to Florida government officials, even those at independent regulatory bodies. They have been put on notice that they must toe the governor’s line or risk being professionally embarrassed, undermined or passed over.

Add to that the embarrassing revelation that Mr. Crist has set an extremely leisurely schedule since becoming governor. The St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald recently reported that Mr. Crist takes about 10 weeks off per year.

However, Mr. Crist is most vulnerable on Florida’s faltering economy, with an insurance crisis, 11 percent unemployment, and the highest foreclosures in the nation. As a result, Mr. Crist’s public approval rating has fallen to 42 percent.

But the cause celebre with conservatives is Mr. Crist’s vocal support of Mr. Obama’s stimulus bill. Reihan Salam writes in Forbes that by accepting all of the stimulus, “Crist has committed Florida to a fiscal nightmare, one that will lead to draconian tax hikes and spending cuts long after he makes a break for the U.S. Senate or finds some other comfortable sinecure thanks to the good graces of his many wealthy friends.” Imagine the irony that after signing into law $2 billion in new taxes and fees, Mr. Crist hosted a small business summit in Tallahassee last week.

The question is: Why would Florida Republicans vote for someone who has supported anti-business policies and is blocking investment in energy infrastructure intended to prevent a utility collapse akin to California’s in the 1990s? Floridians are beginning to realize they have a real choice in the primary.

Mr. Rubio, a 38-year-old Catholic father of four whose parents fled Cuba in 1959, has generated significant excitement among the base as an “unapologetic conservative.” Articulate, energetic and good-looking, Mr. Rubio excites Republican voters.

In recent weeks he has stressed his conservative credentials on cable news and stated his opposition to a health care takeover and unrestrained government spending. National Review featured Mr. Rubio on its cover and he is winning endorsements (most recently the Club for Growth, as well as former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Jim DeMint and Sen. James M. Inhofe).

So where does the race stand? Mr. Crist built a significant early lead of 30 points. Those polls have narrowed, and where voters know both candidates, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Crist are nearly tied - with likely primary voters are trending toward Mr. Rubio. Momentum and excitement is with Mr. Rubio right now, as he overwhelmingly wins county straw polls and has significantly increased his fundraising.

The closed primary of Florida’s 4 million registered Republicans may result in a turnout of around 400,000 people. As George Will wrote in a column supporting Mr. Rubio in The Washington Post, “Their primary will test whether the party has become so risk-averse that it flinches from interesting choices.”

Conservatives can send a message to Washington that they oppose backroom deals and to choose the best candidate. In the Florida Senate primary, a clear choice is emerging and it will be a very unpleasant few months for Mr. Crist.

Matt Mackowiak is a Texas- and Washington-based Republican political and communications consultant and founder of Potomac Strategy Group LLC. He was a Senate press secretary from 2005 to 2009.

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