29 April 2010

The problem with Charlie Crist

Until recently, Charlie Crist had been my kind of Republican -- a competent, popular, centrist governor of a swing state who was politically savvy and made few enemies.

However, Crist has all but lost me with his decision to run as an independent in the Florida Senate race.

Here's why.

First, I haven't heard any analyst note this fact when comparing Crist's situation to the Joe Lieberman/Ned Lamont fiasco in 2006 in Connecticut. This isn't akin to the Lieberman scenario because Crist is not an incumbent senator, as Lieberman was, but rather holds a separate state office (just like Rubio), and is running to replace an outgoing Republican. Lieberman, on the contrary, was an incumbent moderate Democrat who was literally tossed out on his ear by his party's moonbat wing. This is not Crist's seat to begin with, as there is no incumbent. Therefore, Crist has no greater claim in the Republican hierarchy than Rubio, who is one of the most popular, influential Republicans in Florida.

Second, even before this episode, Crist has made a name for himself as an opportunist. Recall the 2008 election. All four major Republican candidates -- McCain, Guiliani, Romney and Huckabee -- were making a play for Crist's coveted endorsement leading up to the Florida primary. With approval ratings in the mid-60s, Crist was his state's most popular politician. As is set out in "Game Change," Crist all but promised his endorsement to Guiliani before the Iowa caucuses, at which time the former mayor was considered the front-runner. The other three candidates continued to make overtures to Crist, however, who remained coy after Huckabee won Iowa and McCain won New Hampshire. Then, immediately after McCain's victory in South Carolina, Crist unexpectedly endorsed the Senior Senator as the candidates made their way down to Florida, dashing Guiliani's hopes for the nomination. McCain went on to win handily in Florida, won nearly all of the primaries on Super Tuesday, and coasted to the nomination.

Examining Crist's behavior two years later, it's difficult to paint Crist as anything but an opportunist. McCain was clearly the best and most qualified candidate, and perhaps even the candidate who best reflected Crist's moderate conservatism, but if he was as committed to McCain's candidacy as he claimed, he would have followed Tim Pawlenty's lead and endorsed McCain in 2007. By lending his support literally hours after McCain was declared the winner in South Carolina, and as the candidates were literally en route to Florida, Crist was clearly cherry-picking the front-runner. At that time, he was considered vice-presidential timber, so it's hard to not see through his facade. He clearly was angling for the #2 spot on the Republican ticket.

Said Brett Doster, a GOP strategist in Florida: "I don't know whether Charlie is left of center or right of center. Charlie is all about Charlie."

Third, Crist's independent candidacy is obviously going to siphon hundreds of thousands of votes away from Rubio. The conservative vote will be split between these two, opening the door for a previously unfathomable Democratic takeover. Kendrick Meek is a relatively serious Democratic contender. Real Clear Politics' breakdown is here.

If I happened to be voting in the Republican primary, I would probably vote for Crist. However, my vote for Crist arises not out of my center-right politics, but rather my estimation that Crist would have a better chance at keeping the seat in Republican hands.

Crist should concede, endorse Rubio, and spend the next six months campaigning hard on his behalf. By doing this, Crist would virtually guarantee the seat would remain in Republican hands, and he would endear himself not only to the base but also party leadership, setting the table for a serious run at either the presidency or Sen. Bill Nelson's seat in 2012. A fellow named MItt Romney did exactly this in 2008 and now finds himself at the top of the Republican heap heading into 2012.

By running as an independent, Crist had better hope that either he or Rubio manages to win a higher plurality than Meek.

Otherwise, he should never work in politics again.

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