Behind Crist's Exit from the GOP: The Hand of Jeb Bush?

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Scott Audette / Reuters

Florida Governor Charlie Crist points into the crowd before announcing that he will run as an independent for U.S. Senate during a news conference in St. Petersburg, Florida April 29, 2010.

Four years ago, then Florida governor Jeb Bush stepped onto the state house floor in Tallahassee and presented 34-year-old state representative Marco Rubio, who was being sworn in as the chamber's new speaker, with a golden sword. It was the weapon of a "great conservative warrior" whom Bush called "the mystical Chang," and he urged his fellow conservative Republican to "unleash" it when necessary.

The unusual gift was tongue-in-cheek, but to the gathered Florida pols, it was nothing less than a Confucian designation of Rubio as Bush's conservative heir. So while Jeb Bush has made no formal endorsement in this year's primary contest for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat between Rubio and current governor Charlie Crist, it's fairly obvious to the state's voters whom the Channeler of Chang is backing.

And that's been only one of Crist's many problems. On Thursday, April 29, Crist announced that he's dropping out of the August Republican primary and instead running in the November general election as an independent — or more precisely, say people close to his campaign, as a "no party affiliation" candidate, which means he can retain his Republican Party registration. Now that he has made the much anticipated move, a lingering question will be the extent to which Bush himself, as many Florida political watchers have suggested recently, unleashed the conservative blade on his more moderate successor.

Even Crist supporters are reluctant to blame behind-the-scenes machinations by Jeb for the collapse of Crist's primary campaign — which in most polls has fallen more than 20 points behind Rubio after being ahead by that much this time last year. And there's no doubt that Crist's own mistakes, especially his misreading of Tea Party conservatism, played a large role. But as a top GOP operative close to Bush points out, "Crist forgot that Jeb still defines the Republican Party more than anyone else in Florida. This was Jeb's way of reminding him of that."

Jeb Bush, 57, who was governor from 1999 to 2007, usually refrains from taking sides in Florida's GOP primaries. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have strong views. "Most of us have two or three principles we stand behind, no matter what, but Jeb has about 50 of them," a Florida Republican leader once observed. And to Jeb-ites, who, like their hero, often bristle at dissent, Crist has too often betrayed those principles, even if he does call Bush "Florida's greatest governor." (In a recent interview with TIME, Crist dismissed speculation that Bush had orchestrating his stunning slide in the polls.)

Crist billed himself as the pragmatic, big-tent Republican many felt the party needed after its disastrous losses in 2006 and 2008. From putting hurricane insurance under greater state control to making it easier for ex-convicts to regain voting rights, he's rolled back a chunk of Bush's conservative legacy. Bush had been one of Florida's most popular governors for making the state's government more efficient and its dismal public schools more accountable. But Crist won higher voter-approval ratings than even Bush had.

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