Can Crist Survive a Right-Wing Uprising in Florida?

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From left: Phil Coale / AP; Ramin Talaie / Corbis

Former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio, left, and Governor Charlie Crist

A new voter poll was released a couple of weeks ago that showed Florida Governor Charlie Crist dropping into a tie with former state House speaker Marco Rubio — an underdog Crist had led by more than 20 points last summer — in next year's Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate. But the next day, Crist was still being Crist. Seemingly ignoring the GOP conservatives who've been lambasting him for reversing much of the red-meat legacy of his predecessor, Jeb Bush, Crist enthusiastically signed a bill expanding passenger rail in Florida — including a high-speed train system Bush made a point of quashing five years ago. The measure, Crist said, will take "the Sunshine State into a new era of economic prosperity and innovation."

Just as big a concern for the tanned "Sunshine Governor," however, is how to get his Senate campaign back on the rails. Ever since a conservative tent revival began sweeping America last summer, sparked by angry misgivings about health care reform and other harbingers of big government, Republican purists have targeted Crist's moderate, bipartisan style. Seizing on his embrace of President Obama's $787 billion economic-stimulus plan, they've treated him as a whipping boy for everything that's wrong with the battered GOP as well as Florida's recession-ravaged economy, whose unemployment rate of 11.5% is the state's worst since 1975. Along the way they've anointed Rubio, a 38-year-old Cuban American, as the right wing's new boy wonder, a genuinely conservative David who can slay Crist's Goliath RINO (Republican in Name Only) in the primary next August.

The new poll has Crist and Rubio even at 43 points, a 10-point swing for both men since last August. It's a sign, says Aubrey Jewett, a Florida politics expert at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, that "political gravity has caught up with Crist," who until last summer had had approval ratings near 70%, but to many Floridians now seems at a loss about how to jump-start jobs. And it's just the latest warning that if Crist hopes to take his less strident and more inclusive brand of Republicanism to Washington — an approach, shared by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, that many thought the GOP should adopt after last year's disastrous election losses — he has to reckon first with the Bush brand. "He has to spend 2010 hammering home the message, much more strongly than he has up to now, that he is a fundamentally conservative candidate," says Jewett. He still believes Crist is the favorite; but if Crist ends up losing to Rubio, says Jewett, "it could be deadly for moderate Republicans, at least in the short run."

In interviews with TIME, Crist and his new campaign manager, former chief of staff Eric Eikenberg, described a counterattack for 2010 that will emphasize Crist's conservative bona fides while casting doubt on those of Rubio — who recently conceded to a Florida television station that he too would have taken Obama's stimulus money. At the same time, Crist will try to avoid giving the impression — as he did often this year, especially as he acrobatically tried to distance himself from the stimulus — that he's cynically apologizing for his moderate principles in order to win conservative voters who may well dominate Florida's closed primary election.

"In the end it's a matter of consistency," Crist admits. "I'm a pro-gun, pro-life, fiscal conservative, but I'm also a pragmatic conservative who thinks it's important to remember what a real conservative like Jack Kemp once said, that the Republican Party should be a big tent."

But first he has to win back some of the smaller tent, where he's been losing a number of local straw polls of Florida's conservative GOP base. Crist has let Republican fundamentalists hammer him on the stimulus — and the now famous picture of him and Obama sharing an onstage hug — but his campaign is poised now to hammer back with reminders that as Governor he led a crusade to tamp down Florida's runaway property taxes and insurance premiums. Conservatives are still apoplectic about his appointment of an African-American Democrat to the Florida Supreme Court this year; but he's expected to remind them about the two dyed-in-the-wool conservatives he appointed before that. They've wailed about his efforts to restore voting rights to released felons; but Crist's "Chain Gang Charlie" nickname, which he got for co-sponsoring a law that revived the use of leg irons for prison labor, will probably be heard more often in 2010.

Yet alienating the less impassioned Republicans who don't come out for straw polls — especially in a state with Florida's centrist and independent streak — is also risky. Crist knows they vote in primaries. They helped give him a landslide victory in the 2006 gubernatorial primary against a more conservative candidate. They also lifted John McCain, the more moderate Republican Crist backed for the presidential nomination last year, to a key Florida primary victory. (They also know, according to polls, that Crist has a better chance of defeating a Democratic candidate next fall than Rubio does.) As a result, Crist insists he doesn't regret what critics derided as his overly effusive welcome to Obama in Florida last February. "I think the stimulus has been helpful to Florida, so if you believe in your heart that you're doing what's best for your state, you should stand up and say it," says Crist. "I don't have the luxury of scoring political points with conservatives or anyone else during the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression." At the same time, he is quick to stress that he is no fan of Obama's broader agenda. Crist insists he shares "the ideological concern about the direction the Obama Administration is taking us. Government can't keep growing that way and putting future generations at risk with trillions of dollars of debt."

Eikenberg, who was brought on last month as the Governor's poll numbers kept falling — despite an early endorsement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee — says the campaign will make a stronger grass-roots outreach to a wider swath of Republican voters. "Party activists are tremendously important," he says, "but you also have to tell your story to the Republican voters whose time is consumed by running a small business or getting their kids through school. We think they'll come out in force the more they hear who Charlie Crist is all about."

Perhaps Crist's biggest asset is money. The conservative groundswell for Rubio has netted his campaign a surprising $1 million; Crist, however, has $5 million, which could begin raining down on his opponent early next year. After last week's Rasmussen poll, Rubio declared that as a result of "our campaign's growing momentum, voters are starting to realize that there are vast differences between me and Charlie Crist on a number of important issues." But Crist ads will question that assertion — as well as Rubio's record on matters like immigration reform and cap-and-trade policies to limit companies' greenhouse-gas emissions, issues where Rubio, while Florida's House Speaker, didn't exactly follow the Rush Limbaugh path. (He has blasted Crist for supporting cap-and-trade, for example, but voted for it himself last year, and both he and Crist have generally ignored conservative anti-immigration efforts.

Still, at this point Crist has to be careful that conservative voters don't take his attacks on Rubio as attacks on them. He also has to hope that Jeb Bush, whose work as Governor he professes to admire, doesn't decide to throw his still heavy political weight behind Rubio. In a speech to Republicans in Fort Lauderdale last month, a seemingly frustrated Crist read off a litany of his conservative stances and said, "I don't know what else you're supposed to be, except maybe angry too." And yet, if he's going to right his campaign, he has to engage the anger of his party's base.