President Obama with Charlie Crist, governor of Florida, at a town hall meeting in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.
Gov. Charlie Crist, with his wife, Carole, drew protests at a Republican barbecue this month.
November 16, 2009
Governor Crist Becomes a Right-Wing Target
By KATE ZERNIKE
NEWBERRY, Fla. — In retrospect, even Charlie Crist admits that “the optics” of The Hug are not great.
It was in the glow of a new day in politics last February when Mr. Crist, this state’s popular Republican governor, took the stage with President Obama and declared that Republicans and Democrats had to rise above partisanship in support of an economic stimulus. And Mr. Obama embraced him.
Now, as a season of tea parties and fractious town hall meetings has energized the right wing, that embrace has endangered what once seemed like Mr. Crist’s surefire bid for a Senate seat and put Florida at the center of a debate about the future of the Republican Party.
Republican pragmatists argue that to take back its majority, the party has to appeal to a broader range of voters, even if it means running candidates who might stray from the party orthodoxy.
Conservatives counter that Republicans have become Democrats’ enablers in bigger deficits and bigger government, and that the way to win is to sharpen the distinctions between the parties.
A raft of conservative groups, commentators and politicians are supporting a primary challenge to Mr. Crist by Marco Rubio, a telegenic former speaker of the Florida House christened a Reaganite’s answer to Mr. Obama by The National Review.
Mr. Crist, who has been endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is seen by these conservatives as too moderate — even liberal — in his judicial appointments and his support of policies like cap and trade for emissions that contribute to global warming and restoring voting rights to ex-felons.
“Florida is a hill to die on for conservatives,” said Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative blog RedState.com, which leads a daily drumbeat against Mr. Crist. “This is the clearest example we have of these two competing concepts.”
Similar fights are playing out in primary races in other states. In a California Senate primary that promises to be just as intense as this one, conservatives are championing Chuck DeVore, a state assemblyman, over Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard whose candidacy has the support of prominent Republican senators and the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain.
“Some of the Republicans who’ve been around a long time, they’re the big spenders, they’re the big government people,” said Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, who as chairman of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee, has become a kingmaker for conservative challengers, and has endorsed Mr. Rubio.
“What’s going to happen, the voters are going to weed out these Republicans who no longer share the core principles that make our country great,” Mr. DeMint said.
It may be a principled debate, but it is not shaping up as a polite one.
As Mr. Crist was introduced at the Ronald Reagan Black Tie and Blue Jeans Barbeque at an open-air rodeo in this Central Florida town this month, hecklers with Rubio bumper stickers on their backs called out, “Go Hug Obama!”
People posting on FreeRepublic.com mock Mr. Crist as Charlie Loafers. “Charlie Crist Delenda Est,” declared a RedState headline: “Charlie Crist must be destroyed.”
Conservative and moderate Republicans take very different lessons from this month’s special Congressional election in upstate New York, in which a third-party conservative challenged the moderate Republican candidate. In the end, a Democrat won the seat in the historically Republican district after the Republican dropped out under pressure from the right and then endorsed the Democrat.
Republicans took it as evidence that candidates from the far right cannot win. But conservatives say their candidate would have prevailed if the establishment had been smart enough to put its money behind him, rather than a Republican they argue was a Democrat in thin disguise.
Before polls closed on Election Day, Mr. Erickson and Mr. DeMint convened a conference call to identify the next conservative battlegrounds, urging thousands of followers to direct the energy and money they had spent in the New York race toward a Rubio victory. The Club for Growth is now backing Mr. Rubio, and produced an anti-Crist ad featuring the hug.
Endorsements from conservative leaders like Mike Huckabee and Dick Armey and glowing coverage from George F. Will and National Review have made Mr. Rubio, 38, the sudden standard bearer for a more conservative Republican Party. In the past few months, he has begun pulling closer to Mr. Crist in polls and fund-raising, collecting nearly $1 million in the last cycle.
Mr. Crist, endlessly tanned, endlessly sunny, is known as a gifted campaigner with savvy for symbolism.
Hoping to emphasize his record as tough on crime when he ran for governor, he had the host of “America’s Most Wanted” deliver his papers to elections officials. He came into office promising to cut property taxes, and promoting consensus on issues like the environment and stem cell research. And if they sometimes say he is trying too hard to please everyone, voters, Democrat as well as Republican, have rewarded him with high ratings.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee backed Mr. Crist as soon as he announced he was running in May, thinking it would save trouble. He is as avid a fund-raiser as he is a campaigner, and helped deliver the state, and effectively the Republican presidential nomination, to Mr. McCain — so the party could save money in Florida to spend elsewhere.
“I think pragmatism is not a bad thing,” said the committee’s chairman, Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
But, hounded by conservative bloggers, Mr. Cornyn announced this month that he did not plan to spend any money in the primary. The committee does not usually spend in primaries; the need for such a statement spoke to the heat of the race, 10 months before primary day.
Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles and a protégé of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, is known as an eloquent speaker and is quick with a quip. (“Charlie Crist supported the stimulus, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it.”)
He argues for small government and reduced spending, but mostly, he talks about the need to stop what he calls the Obama agenda. “The bottom line is that if you’re a Republican, the Republican Party should be an alternative, not a facsimile,” he said in an interview. “And I think I offer that.”
He has been trouncing Mr. Crist in party straw polls across Florida. In Palm Beach County, the party held off a censure of Mr. Crist with a 65-65 tie. Sid Dinerstein, the party chairman there, said most of those voting against censure had done so only because they thought it should be used to condemn moral failings, not political ones.
In an interview, Mr. Crist, 53, called himself a “pragmatic Reaganite conservative.” He is against abortion and same-sex marriage, and supports gun rights and the death penalty.
He sees how the hug could make him seem too cozy with Democrats. “I understand the optics,” he said. “I also know where the polls are, still.”
A Quinnipiac University poll late last month showed Mr. Crist beating Mr. Rubio, 50 percent to 35 percent, and the presumed Democratic candidate, Representative Kendrick B. Meek, 51 to 31 percent. The poll also showed Mr. Meek beating Mr. Rubio, 36 to 33 percent.
But Mr. Crist’s lead over Mr. Rubio had shrunk to 15 points from 29 points in August. And Rubio supporters point to an Rasmussen Reports poll in October that showed him doing better than Mr. Crist in a Meek matchup.
In part, Mr. Crist’s troubles are local: the Obama embrace reinforced a sense that the governor shifts with the political winds.
“He hugged Obama when it was convenient, and now he’s trying to distance himself,” said Johanne Artman, 68. “I don’t trust him.”
Ms. Artman was corralling people to collect Rubio literature at the Reagan barbeque. “I’ve never been so excited about anyone as I am about Marco Rubio,” she said. “Everything as a conservative I believe in, he stands for.”
But the complaints about the hug also reflect anger about the stimulus — as Roger Pennington, a 56-year-old pharmacist, called it, “bad money after bad.”
That anger has fueled the broader anti-establishment furor expressed in the tea parties — directed as much at Republicans as Democrats, and especially at those like Mr. Crist who can be associated with Mr. Obama.
“He’ll never be able to get over that photo,” Mr. Pennington said, declining the opportunity to shake hands with Mr. Crist and his new wife, Carole, as they campaigned at the barbeque.
Mr. Crist does not apologize for appearing on stage with Mr. Obama, saying it was the polite thing to do when a president visits your state for the first time. “He’s the president of the United States,” he said. “I campaigned for the other guy. The bona fides on where I was are very clear.”
His supporters argue that the voices that are loudest now are not the voice of the majority.
“The majority of our country is not on either end of the spectrum, but somewhere in the middle,” said Jason Rosenberg, 41, a plastic surgeon in Gainesville.
“I think the governor has crossed party lines well,” he said. And, he said, “I want someone who’s going to win.”