Florida voters knew Republican Governor Charlie Crist would go on the attack sooner or later this year to try to salvage his floundering campaign for the U.S. Senate. But they surely had no idea that his rival's grooming habits would become an issue. Last week on Fox News, Crist blasted his surging opponent in the August Republican primary election, former Florida house speaker Marco Rubio, for having used a GOP-issued American Express card for personal purchases, including $133.75 spent at a deluxe Miami barbershop. Rubio is "trying to pawn himself off as a fiscal conservative," Crist said. "And yet he had a Republican Party of Florida credit card [and] he charged $130 for a haircut, or maybe it was a back wax. We are not sure what all he got at that place."
The subject notwithstanding, it was the kind of spirited swipe Crist backers had been waiting to hear. But it doesn't seem to be doing much damage to Rubio's surprising, and widening, lead in the polls. Before the relatively unknown 38-year-old Rubio became the darling of angry conservatives last summer, the race for the Florida Senate seat one of the most important up for grabs in 2010, given the Sunshine State's bellwether status looked like a walk on the beach for Crist, who led some polls by almost 30 points. Since then, Crist's bipartisan style, including his embrace of President Obama's $787 billion economic-stimulus plan and his performance as recession-racked Florida's chief executive, have come under withering assault from GOP loyalists. Rubio tops most surveys now by double digits; in one released last month by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizzio, he leads Crist 52% to 27% among self-identified Florida conservatives.
Even national Republican leaders who tripped over one another last year to endorse Crist, a governor who until recently enjoyed approval ratings as high as 70%, are backing off. Texas Senator John Cornyn, who heads the GOP's Senate campaign committee, said last week that while he's not dropping his endorsement altogether, he regrets having jumped to anoint Crist so soon back when the governor "seemed like the ideal candidate."
That kind of buyer's remorse has Florida conservatives crowing. "The entire Crist operation appears to be in a death spiral," says GOP consultant Brett Doster, an ally of Crist's conservative predecessor, Jeb Bush, whose fans say Crist's centrist agenda has betrayed Bush's legacy. "It's hard to imagine at this point what he could possibly do to reverse this." And it will be even harder if Bush decides, as many think he'll do after the current Florida legislative session ends in May, to endorse Rubio. "Jeb," Doster adds, "is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room right now."
A growing chorus of pundits is suggesting that Crist should not even try to battle the resurgent right but instead run in the November general election as an independent. Or perhaps even follow formerly Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who, facing a conservative revolt in his state, last year bolted the GOP to run as a Democrat in his re-election bid this year. But with even Florida's usually centrist independent voters appearing to shun Crist now, polls suggest Rubio could defeat him in November as well as the leading Democratic candidate, Congressman Kendrick Meek. Either way, Crist adamantly rejects the idea, and aides close to him insist he's not considering it.
Up to now, Crist's strategy has focused on debunking Rubio's credentials not only as a fiscal conservative but as the kind of scrupulous antipolitician the Tea Party movement gushes over. Crist's campaign points to the $250 million in pork-barrel spending Rubio ushered into his Miami district from 2000 to 2008, and the recent revelations of Rubio's American Express purchases have sparked charges of hypocrisy. From 2005 to 2008, Rubio racked up thousands of dollars in personal charges on his GOP AmEx, from the upscale barber to musical equipment, despite party and IRS rules that require the card to be used only for election-related purposes.
Rubio insists he's repaid the party, but he's drawn snickers by arguing that airline tickets for his wife "to accompany me to official events and party functions" were a legitimate expense since she was "the First Lady of the Florida House of Representatives."
But it's probably not enough to tamp down the criticism Crist himself faces. By trying to convince the right that he's the true conservative after spending four years as a moderate, Rockefeller-style Republican Governor Crist has drawn accusations that he's more ambitious chameleon than judicious consensus builder. What's more, his massive state purchase of U.S. Sugar Corp. land to enhance Everglades restoration, touted last year as a landmark environmental triumph, is now under scrutiny as a sweeter deal for the sugar giant: the company was represented by a legal firm headed in part by Crist's former chief of staff, George LeMieux, whom Crist later tapped to fill the Senate seat the Governor is now seeking after Republican Mel Martinez stepped down last year. Crist got a boost last week when state water-management officials voted to keep the crucial land deal alive. But to
Rubio, the U.S. Sugar "bailout" is another example of how Crist has forgotten the bedrock Republican ideal that "this country was built on the principles of limited government," he told TIME recently.
So does Crist have any hope left? Well, the money is still on his side. He has a $9 million war chest, vs. about $3 million for Rubio (though Rubio is expected to lift that figure significantly this quarter). But rather than blow it all
on desperate-looking attack ads, say many Florida political experts, Crist should emphasize a gubernatorial record that's more Republican-friendly than his foes admit. "Crist did preside over one of the largest tax reductions in Florida history," says Sean Foreman, a political scientist at Barry University in Miami, referring to Crist's multibillion-dollar property-tax cuts. "He needs to define Rubio, but he also needs to define himself better, especially his experience vs. Rubio's lack of it. If he does that, I still think Crist hasn't lost this yet."
Rubio's campaign argues that his record as state house speaker, when he ushered bills like an insurance overhaul for hurricane-harassed Floridians, reflects experience as well. But Foreman believes Rubio faces his own dilemma: whether to continue to keep a safe distance from, or buddy up to, the Tea Party fringe that has helped galvanize his poll numbers but remains skeptical about his commitment to red-meat causes like immigration restrictions and gun owners' rights. Still, Rubio's problems are slight by comparison. The only candidate who looks waxed at the moment is Charlie Crist.
With reporting by Wendy Malloy / Tampa