President Obama and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appear on the stage at a Fort Myers, Fla., town hall meeting in February 2009.
President Obama and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appear on the stage at a Fort Myers, Fla., town hall meeting in February 2009. Charles Dharapak/AP
A year ago, Florida Republican Charlie Crist was one of the nation's most popular governors. When he announced he wanted to run for his state's open Senate seat, it looked like a sure thing.
But his candidacy is struggling with an angry electorate and the surging campaign of conservative Republican challenger Marco Rubio, Florida's former state House speaker.
Infamous Hug A Symbol Of Allegiance?
Some say the race's turning point — the incident that turned Crist's cakewalk into a battle — came in February 2009, one year ago.
It was before either Crist or Rubio had officially announced he was running for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Mel Martinez. President Obama appeared in Fort Myers, Fla., at a rally in support of his stimulus package.
Appearing alongside the president — and even giving him a brief hug at one point — was Crist.
For conservative Republicans in Florida — and for Rubio — it was unforgivable.
"It's hard to believe it's been a year since the Obama-Crist stimulus package happened in this very building," Rubio told supporters recently. "Time flies when you're spending $787 billion."
Rubio's 'Stimulus Bomb'
Crist's opponent, Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, shakes hands with supporters during a rally for his Senate campaign in Fort Myers, Fla., on Wednesday.
Crist's opponent, Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, shakes hands with supporters during a rally for his Senate campaign in Fort Myers, Fla., on Wednesday. Amanda Inscore/AP/news-press.com
On Wednesday, Rubio piled it on with a rally in Fort Myers. It coincided with a fundraising push — what the Rubio campaign called his "stimulus bomb." There were 400 to 500 people in the hall, far fewer than the 1,500 that turned out for Obama last year.
Many were members of Florida's active Tea Party community from Naples and Punta Gorda. A busload came down from Tampa.
There was a lot of anger in the crowd — about taxes, spending and the intrusion of government into citizens' lives. Rubio played to it and took note of the blizzard this week that largely shut down Washington, D.C.
"The Congress can't meet to vote on things," Rubio said. "You know what we think? I think this blizzard is the best thing that's happened to the American economy in 12 months."
Rubio didn't go into specifics about what he would do if elected senator because so far, he hasn't had to. In recent months, he's made up a 30-point deficit, and now he runs ahead of Crist in most polls. He's done that by tapping into anger at Washington and conservative discontent with the moderate Crist.
For Crist, Business As Usual
Despite his slide in the polls, Crist appears unruffled as he makes the rounds as governor, visits schools and job centers and takes charge as Florida hospitals respond to the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.
Crist was in Miami recently to announce he had secured the federal government's commitment to pay for the medical costs of evacuees from Haiti.
"There's a time to talk about politics and there's a time to talk about people," Crist said. "And what we're doing here today is talking about people — their needs, their wants, their desires and how government is supposed to provide for them. And that's a much more important message for us to hold on to and understand and respect. I'm not really concerned about poll numbers — I'm concerned about the people."
The divisive race for the Republican Senate nomination has cheered Democrats, especially U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who seems likely to win his party's nomination for Senate.
Rubio has been picking up endorsements from conservatives outside of Florida — people like anti-tax leader Grover Norquist and South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. Rubio will soon receive national exposure as the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Meanwhile, Crist has struggled with the moderate label, as well as with his embrace of Obama and $4 billion in federal stimulus money.
Interviewed by CBS before the Super Bowl in Miami Beach, Crist gave what's become his standard reply to charges from conservatives that he's a "Republican in Name Only," a RINO.
"Well, if I'm a RINO, then so is Ronald Reagan," Crist said. "I mean, I'm a less-taxing, less-spending, less-government, more-freedom kind of guy. I just take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to government. And if that's not what the people want, they'll let me know. But I'm confident that it is. I really am."
'What About Jobs?'
At the recent Rubio rally, there was widespread discontent with Crist. But many people said they still don't know enough about Rubio.
David Stitch from North Fort Myers, Fla., said his main concern is the economy. "What about jobs?" Stitch said. "I don't see any of this stimulus money going to promote jobs. I just don't see it. I've been looking for work for two years."
Stitch said he agreed with Crist's decision to take stimulus money.
"To be honest with you, I think any state in the union, if they don't take what's offered to them, would be wrong," he said. "But it's how they manage the money once they get it."
Florida's August primary is six months away, and a lot can happen before then. Money will play a major role. Currently, Crist has $7 million on hand against Rubio's $2 million. That's important in a big state with 20 media markets.