Crist: Too Moderate for Florida Republicans

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Phil Coale / AP

Charlie Crist, announcing that he will run for the Senate and not seek another term as governor at a news conference in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 12

Governor Charlie Crist is the most popular politician in Florida, but that doesn't mean he'll be the Sunshine State's next U.S. Senator. He'll have to win a closed primary first, and he's not the most popular Republican in the Florida Republican Party.

The upcoming battle between the moderate Crist and the conservative former Florida house speaker Marco Rubio would be the most interesting GOP primary of 2010 even if moderate Republican Pennyslvania Senator Arlen Specter hadn't switched parties to avoid a beatdown from conservative Club for Growth president Pat Toomey. Crist is a peppy populist who has bucked his party on the environment, civil rights and the stimulus bill; Rubio is the telegenic young Cuban-American protégé of the former governor who actually is the most popular Republican in the Florida Republican Party, a guy named Jeb Bush. "Elections are best when they are about clear choices," Rubio Twittered after Crist announced his candidacy on Tuesday. "Let the debate begin." (See pictures of Republican memorabilia.)

In recent years, as the GOP has been shrinking to its conservative base, that base has exerted even greater control. Specter argued that ideological purity was banishing the party to the fringe, making it impossible for GOP centrists to survive; he went so far as to accuse the Club for Growth of promoting Democratic victories by purging Republican moderates. Well, Crist is the party's best-known swing-state centrist, a well-liked governor who has worked closely with Democrats. And the Club for Growth has already declared that Rubio's "fiscally responsible, pro-growth approach in the state capitol stands in stark contrast with other elements of the state government led by Charlie Crist." (Read TIME's cover story on Republicans in distress.)

It's not a big surprise that Crist is trying to move to Washington to replace Mel Martinez rather than run for re-election in Tallahassee. Crist is a congenital — almost pathological — optimist. But while he hasn't been blamed much for the collapse of the Florida economy or the implosion of the state budget, he must realize that the governor's seat is sure to become a hot one. Crist doesn't like grunt work, and he doesn't like confrontation; he likes to be liked, and he likes to take heroic stands, which are a lot harder to take when there is no money to pay for them. In any case, he was already prone to wanderlust; in the past decade, Crist has won statewide elections for education commissioner, attorney general and governor — but he's never run for re-election. And Washington isn't a bad place to be if you want to be part of the national conversation.

It's also no surprise that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is breaking precedent to endorse Crist in the primary, even though the ideology of the GOP caucus is a lot closer to Rubio's. The NRSC is in the business of winning elections, and Crist has been thriving in that business while his party has been going bust. He's an impressive fundraiser and an exuberant campaigner who makes you understand why they call it "glad-handing." If he's the Republican nominee, the party will probably be able to focus its resources on holding endangered seats in Missouri, Ohio and now Pennsylvania. Florida chief financial officer Alex Sink, the most formidable Democrat considering the Senate race, will now probably run for governor instead. (Read about GOP governors who are split over the stimulus plan.)

Some Republicans had hoped that Rubio could be persuaded to run for governor as well, but it sure doesn't sound like it. On Monday, he released a YouTube video featuring a picture of Crist huddled with President Obama. His Twitter feed is full of subtler shots: "Starting my third day of working hard to make sure the republican nominee for US Senate is a republican." He recently compared Crist to Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, the last GOP moderates in the Senate, and he didn't mean it as a compliment. The stimulus bill has become a kind of litmus test for Republican loyalty — Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele has even broached the possibility of backing challengers against any Republicans who voted for it, even though most economists agree that government spending can help jump-start a recessionary economy — and Crist's embrace of Obama on this issue has made him toxic to Club for Growth–style conservatives.

But the most telling snipe came from a private citizen named George P. Bush, who recently dismissed Crist as a quasi-Democrat who "wants to assume that government is the answer to all of our problems," in stark contrast to his father Jeb. Crist has governed far to Bush's left, replacing industry-friendly appointees with environmentalists and pushing for aggressive action on climate change, securing voting rights for felons, and taking on insurance companies and developers. It's no secret in Florida that Jeb Bush is irked by the assault on his legacy, though it's not clear what he plans to do about it. (Read Joe Scarborough's essay on how Republicans can come back.)

If the former governor decides to put his prestige on the line to help Rubio, Crist could have a real problem on his hands. One preliminary April poll gave Crist a 54%-8% advantage over Rubio, but that's because Rubio is virtually unknown; his deeply conservative positions on taxes, abortion, immigration, gambling and carbon emissions are a lot closer to the GOP base than Crist's. He'll accuse Crist of being a RINO — a Republican In Name Only — and given the current makeup of the party, he'll have a point. And even though Crist was recently married and steadfastly maintains that he is straight, a recent documentary about secretly gay politicians portrayed him as a closet case, which is never helpful before a Republican primary.

That said, Crist is an extremely attractive figure who seems to combine remarkable political instincts with a genuine desire to do the right thing. He isn't dogmatic or dour or mean; he's got a Reaganesque belief in tomorrow. He has done an impressive job leading a big and diverse state through tough times.

In other words, he's exactly what the Republican Party needs. The question is whether he's what the Republican Party wants.

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