- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2009

ARCADIA, Fla. — President Obama’s visit to a massive solar power plant here Tuesday was supposed to highlight the benefits of his $787 billion stimulus plan, passed soon after he took office. But one sign that this message may not be connecting: The Republican governor who in February embraced both the president and the plan was nowhere to be seen this time.

In fact, Gov. Charlie Crist was noticeably absent from all of the president’s events here in Florida on Monday and Tuesday. He did not appear once with Mr. Obama and even went so far as to imply that he had just found out that Mr. Obama was in his state.

“First I’ve heard of it,” he told local reporters Tuesday of Mr. Obama’s trip. A spokeswoman for the governor later said, when pressed to clarify, that Mr. Crist “did not know the president’s exact itinerary.”

State politics is a big reason why Mr. Crist, who is running for the Senate seat that was vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez in September, was not eager to be seen with Mr. Obama. Mr. Crist is being pressed hard on his right flank by former GOP House Speaker Marco Rubio, a 38-year old son of Cuban immigrants.

But one of the biggest sticks in Mr. Rubio’s arsenal is the governor’s support for the stimulus package earlier this year. Mr. Crist appeared at a rally for Mr. Obama in Fort Myers when the fate of the bill hung in the balance in Congress and gave the Democratic president a now-famous bear hug.

“It’s clear President Obama’s visit has made Gov. Crist excruciatingly uncomfortable,” said Alex Burgos, a Rubio campaign spokesman. “It’s clear his support for the stimulus was misguided, it hasn’t lived up to its expectations, and now he’s trying to run away from it.”

Mr. Burgos cited a promise from the Obama administration that Florida would save or gain 218,000 jobs from the $12.2 billion in stimulus funds, and pointed to the fact that the state has in fact lost more than 196,000 jobs this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mr. Obama’s approval rating has fallen from higher than 60 percent to less than 50 percent, according to local news reports.

The White House argues that the stimulus has “cushioned the blow” of the ongoing economic recession, which so far has cost the nation 7.2 million jobs since December 2007, with 3.4 million of those jobs lost since Mr. Obama took office.

Much of the debate has centered on the administration’s claim that their massive fiscal program has not only created but also saved jobs that would have been eliminated. Critics say the White House claim in many cases cannot be verified.

But Mr. Crist himself said in July that the stimulus had saved 26,000 teaching jobs, calling the results “pretty incredible.” States will report fuller statistics on the impact of the stimulus on Friday.

Since the summer, however, Mr. Rubio has cut Mr. Crist’s lead in polls by half among Republican primary voters, coming from 29 points back to 15 points behind. Mr. Rubio is running on a platform of strict fiscal discipline, attacking the nation’s growing debt and budget deficit. He supports a balanced-budget amendment, along with line-item veto power for the president to cut wasteful spending. Mr. Rubio raised $1 million in the third quarter of this year, three times more than the $340,000 he raised in the second quarter. It was, however, still less than half of Mr. Crist’s $2.4 million in the third quarter.

Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who was born and raised in New Orleans, said that Mr. Crist’s avoidance of Mr. Obama was an example of “personal ambition and partisanship getting in the way of common sense.”

Indeed, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another Southern Republican with political ambitions, last week greeted the president at the airport in New Orleans and accompanied him to multiple events. For Mr. Jindal, appearing with a president still popular among Democrats is good for his own statewide standing.

A Democratic operative with years of experience in Florida politics said Mr. Crist simply should have shown up with Mr. Obama at the solar power event and talked about the project’s impact on jobs. Although the DeSoto solar site, which is the largest in the country, did not receive stimulus funds, it did create 400 jobs for those who installed the panels and other jobs associated with the project.

Mr. Crist’s flight from Mr. Obama’s side, and the contrast with Mr. Jindal from a week ago, was a role reversal for the two Republican state executives often mentioned as potential presidential contenders.

In February, not long after Mr. Crist’s appearance with Mr. Obama and days after the president signed the stimulus into law, the Florida governor appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the same day that Mr. Jindal did. Then, it was Mr. Jindal who made the case for opposing the president’s initiatives and Mr. Crist who spoke about supporting Mr. Obama and the stimulus.

“There is a national leader. His name is President Obama… . I’m willing to give him a good shot and, and try to help make this work,” Mr. Crist said. “You shouldn’t be the party of no.”

Mr. Jindal, however, said that while he believed in working with Mr. Obama when there was agreement, “when we disagree with him, we should be unafraid to stand up on principle and to point out our alternative solutions.”

“I don’t think we expand by becoming an imitation of the other party,” Mr. Jindal said.

Mr. Rubio on Tuesday sounded as if he was channeling Mr. Jindal. He said in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Mr. Crist is “part of a bigger change that’s happened in the Republican Party in some circles, and that is this belief that somehow we need to become more like the Democrats in order to win elections.”

The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and all of the most senior GOP senators have endorsed Mr. Crist.

Dan Senor, a Republican political consultant who was the George W. Bush administration’s spokesman in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003, said on “Morning Joe” that the GOP establishment in Washington is making “a huge mistake.”

“It’s going to blow up in their faces,” he said.

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