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Until, that is, the recession began ravaging Florida last year. And until the furor over health care reform bred the angry Tea Party movement which went hunting for centrist targets like Crist, who had backed President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus (and even hugged Obama at a stimulus rally). Suddenly Crist, who was forgoing a safe bid for a second gubernatorial term, looked vulnerable in the race for the Senate seat vacated by Republican Mel Martinez, and the election became a key battle for the national party's soul. Jeb Bush himself never considered running most Republicans expect him to set his sights on the White House in 2012 or '16. But to the surprise of few who recognized Bush's disdain for Crist, Rubio entered the race, hiring fundraisers close to his mentor and trumpeting Bush's smaller-government agenda.
Bush stuck to his no-primary-endorsement rule and Rubio, knowing the media's penchant for painting him as Bush's proxy, has been careful to keep a safe distance from his mentor. But by the end of last summer, Bush had dropped any pretense of impartiality. In interviews and speeches (like one last September in which he assailed Crist for imposing insurance price controls), he sent Florida's Republican base the message that Rubio was his man and that the National Republican Senatorial Committee which had endorsed Crist almost as soon as he announced his Senate candidacy had acted too precipitously. In the fall, Bush's sons, George P. Bush and Jeb Bush Jr., publicly backed Rubio and hosted a fundraiser for him. Perhaps the killer thrust of the Chang sword came in February when, shortly after Rubio edged ahead of Crist in voter polls, Bush said it was "unforgivable" for Crist to have backed Obama's stimulus.
Jeb allies insist he never set out to to engineer Crist's Republican downfall. But if he had, they say, Crist has made it easy. "Crist simply overplayed his hand as a moderate," says Brett Doster, a GOP political consultant in Tallahassee who has helped run past Jeb Bush campaigns. "You can't alienate your base to that extent. He never stopped to realize that he might be facing this kind of political and economic climate someday."
For their part, Crist backers say his independent run could itself alter the political climate especially since recent polls show Crist ahead in a three-way November race that includes likely Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek. Crist all but fired his first volley as an indie two weeks ago when he vetoed a merit-teacher-pay education bill Bush had championed. Because Florida tends to be a largely centrist state at the end of the day, "the doctrinaire conservatives may have overplayed their own hand," says veteran Florida GOP lobbyist Mac Stipanovich. "Their group isn't as large in this state as they'd like you to think." Even with the mysterious warrior Chang on their side.