By Adam c. Smith and Steve Bousquet
St. Pete Times Staff Writers
How did it come to this?
Charlie Crist, once Florida’s spectacularly popular governor, now on the cusp of seeing his political career washed up?
“I honestly don’t know,” Crist said Friday. “But I certainly think the economy played a role.”
In hindsight, the warning signs were too numerous: Marco Rubio winning local “straw poll” U.S. Senate elections that Crist brushed off as meaningless; prominent GOP allies publicly scolding him for endorsing President Barack Obama’s stimulus package; veteran party leaders beseeching him to remove or at least rein in his handpicked Florida GOP chairman, Jim Greer.
“He’s deader than the day before yesterday. I don’t think there’s any way in the world he can rehabilitate himself,” former state GOP chairman Tom Slade said.
Crist’s once stratospheric approval ratings have dropped below 50 percent. A 30-point lead over Rubio in the Republican U.S. Senate primary race has turned into a 23-point deficit. His fundraising is drying up, mentor Connie Mack yanked his support, and national Republican leaders and grass roots activists are openly contemptuous.
Now the political universe is watching for whether he will hang in as a Republican candidate, drop out or go independent. He must decide by noon Friday.
Crist’s only hope at political viability is to win the Senate seat by running without party affiliation, Slade said. The chances of success, he predicted, are “slim to none.”
• • •
The roots of Crist’s demise as a Republican superstar sprouted almost as soon as he took office. He revoked nearly 300 appointments by predecessor Jeb Bush, hailed Al Gore and teachers union leaders, and embraced Democrats’ calls to mandate paper trails for voting machines.
Crist wrapped himself in the glow of postpartisanship. After the drubbing Republicans took in 2006, Crist became the national model for successful Republicans, the ultimate bipartisan consensus-seeker.
“He ran for governor and was nominated and elected as a conservative,” said Republican strategist Roger Stone of Miami, a former Crist supporter. “After he was elected he went on an ego trip and began to believe he was more popular and more important than his party and his principles. It was all about Charlie — the cult of Charlie.”
The man who used to call himself a “Jeb Bush Republican” was thrilled when Democratic lawmakers called him one of the best Democratic governors Florida had ever had. He proudly showed off the note from former President Bill Clinton congratulating him for easing restrictions on ex-felons regaining their civil rights.
“A lot of Republicans tolerated Charlie Crist because he could win,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson. “It took a long time (for people to start criticizing him) because the people that were uncomfortable with Charlie’s departure from conservative principles were really shouted down and told to shut up because this is the guy who can take it all the way.”
There is an axiom that politicians eventually find themselves in trouble and when that happens, they need their base to shore them up. Crist never tended to his base, consuming himself instead with hugging the center and left.
“He basically ignored us as soon as he became governor,” lamented Pinellas GOP treasurer Chet Renfro, who helped lead Crist’s 2006 campaign in Pinellas and now is helping Rubio.
A populist who governs by intuition, Crist badly misread how deep the enthusiasm for bipartisanship ran. By the time he realized how severely the ground had shifted beneath him — rightward — it was too late to change gears.
“Crist is a populist, and he reaches out to swing voters,” said former Education Secretary Jim Horne, a Republican. “Apparently they swung the other way.”
• • •
Thanks to his personal charm and appeal, Crist’s approval ratings until late last year remained strong despite a lousy economy and his detached style of governing. But steadily, almost methodically, the governor antagonized more and more activists and opinion leaders in his party.
He did it when he made a last-minute endorsement of John McCain after having assured Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani he would stay neutral before Florida’s presidential primary. He did it when he immediately started traveling across the country with McCain and overtly campaigning for the vice presidency, fueling the growing perception that Crist cares more about winning political office than actually governing.
The first real sign that the governor had lost his political bearings? Consider July 2008.
That’s when Crist, renowned for his frugality and political instincts, racked up lavish bills on a trade mission to Europe: $320 for fans to keep him cool during speeches, $1,300 in room service and minibar charges, and $2,200 in hotel suites for him and his fiancee.
Still, Crist’s popularity remained sky high amid increasingly negative coverage. By the time he participated in the worst photo-op of his life, Crist was still basking in his New Breed of Republican image.
Feb. 10, 2009, was the day the governor and President Obama shared a quick embrace in Fort Myers at a rally urging support for the stimulus package. As damaging as the hug would be, Crist’s real problem was being one of the few Republican leaders to enthusiastically endorse the stimulus.
“My guess is, at the time, he was planning to run for re-election as governor. Running for re-election, embracing Obama and the stimulus money made a lot more sense than when you’re running for Senate,” said strategist Stone.
For the first time, prominent Republicans began openly attacking the man viewed as a future presidential contender.
“There’s a difference between working in a bipartisan way for the common good and switching sides and putting on the other team’s jersey,” veteran Republican consultant Alex Castellanos said at the time. “At the one moment when we’ve finally found our voice and remember who we are as Republicans, Charlie Crist forgets. It’s stunning.”
• • •
To hear many of Crist longtime advisers and friends tell it, they warned him over and over about ominous rumblings among Republicans. He ignored them.
In March 2009, he appointed Judge James Perry to the Florida Supreme Court despite tens of thousands of e-mails, calls and faxes generated by conservative groups urging him to appoint Appeals Judge Alan Lawson.
“It was an enormous mistake. Crist could have won me and many, many others over with that appointment,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. “He kind of broke his populist rule on that one.”
Then came Crist’s announcement in May that he would run for U.S. Senate rather than a second term as governor. He looked like a shoo-in then, but across Florida old friends and supporters shook their heads.
“He got elected education commissioner and spent the entire time running for attorney general. He got to be attorney general and spent the entire time running for governor. When he got to be governor, he spent the first two years running for vice president and the last two running for the United States Senate,” said Slade, the former state GOP chairman.
“Finally the electorate says enough is enough. We want someone in government that cares more about us than him.”
It may prove to be the single worst decision Crist ever made. Had he run for re-election, no credible candidate — Democrat or Republican — would have challenged him.
• • •
Former House Speaker Rubio looked like the longest of long shots for Senate, but some Crist advisers took note of what was happening among the grass roots. In June, Pasco County’s GOP executive committee voted 73-9 that it preferred Rubio over Crist. More than two dozen other county executive committees and GOP clubs held similarly lopsided votes in the coming months, but Crist continued to dismiss Rubio and brush off calls to start attacking him.
Slowly, Rubio built up more momentum and buzz.
Meanwhile, Crist had another dramatic decision to make in August: an appointment to fill out the unexpired Senate term of Mel Martinez. In a series of high-profile interviews, Crist summoned GOP icons such as U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, former Reps. Clay Shaw and Lou Frey, former Attorney General Jim Smith, and state Sen. Dan Webster to join him before the TV cameras.
Then he picked George LeMieux, his former campaign manager and chief of staff.
“That made no one happy and it angered a number of well-respected candidates because of the way it was handled,” said Republican strategist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich of Tallahassee. “There’s a general perception that George LeMieux was a poor choice and one made perhaps out of weakness. … Try to imagine Jeb Bush appointing (former chief of staff) Sally Bradshaw to the Senate. It’s just too hard to envision.”
For more than a year, GOP activists and donors had been complaining about lavish spending and financial mismanagement by Greer, the state party chairman Crist had plucked from obscurity and who became one of his closest friends and advisers. Crist infuriated many activists by standing firmly behind the chairman, even as top money raisers threatened to stop helping the party if Greer controlled the money.
“He said to me, ‘You have no proof! You have no proof!’ ” longtime fundraiser Al Hoffman recounted of one heated conversation with Crist. “I said, ‘Get your a– over to headquarters and sit down with the chairman of the audit committee!’ He said, ‘I’ll take it under advisement,’ and never did anything.”
Greer now faces a criminal investigation and his chief benefactor is losing a fight for his political survival.
By many estimates, Crist’s only hope at winning is to turn his back on the party he grew up in and run a long-shot campaign as an unaffiliated candidate.
But looking upbeat as ever, Crist is relishing the attention. On Friday, he was mobbed by high school students in Broward County wanting to thank him, shake his hand, take his picture and get his autograph.
Crist signed in as a visitor.
“Name. Company,” Crist read from the sign-in form. “Charlie. People.”
Miami Herald staff writers Beth Reinhard and Patricia Mazzei contributed. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected].
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