Friday, Oct. 08, 2010

Florida's Senate Race: Marco Rubio vs. Charlie Crist vs. Kendrick Meek

If it's October in Florida, then it must be time to hit up the state's enormous retiree community for votes. Especially if you're Governor Charlie Crist. After months of leading polls in the three-way race for the open U.S Senate seat in Florida, Crist finds himself trailing his Republican opponent, former state house speaker Marco Rubio, by as many as 13 points in new voter surveys. So before his debate in Orlando on Wednesday night, Oct. 13, against Rubio and the Democratic candidate, Congressman Kendrick Meek, Crist released an ad slamming Rubio for wanting to raise the Social Security retirement age. It warns the 65-and-older cohort (19% of Florida's population) that Rubio will "balance the [federal] budget on the backs of seniors."

Rubio's campaign calls the TV spot "false" and "desperate," insisting Rubio has said that any "changes in Social Security [should be] off the table for anyone at or near retirement." (Rubio did sign a conservative pledge last year that called Social Security "generational theft.") Former governor Jeb Bush, Crist's predecessor and a Rubio mentor, also accused Crist of "scaring seniors." But the Social Security gambit could resonate with conservative seniors in Pensacola as well as liberal retirees in Fort Lauderdale. And it points to how Crist — who bolted from the GOP last spring to run as an independent — now has to find issues that appeal to a broader cross section of voters if he hopes to score an autumn comeback and salvage his crusade to keep moderates like himself viable.

Crist's fall has been so sudden that he must be asking himself what happened. His nonpartisan candidacy, which he declared in April after realizing he'd never defeat the conservative, Tea Party–backed Rubio in the August Republican primary, was ahead as recently as last month. Over the spring and summer, Crist seemed to be connecting with voters fed up with both parties and their corrosively polarized politics and fearful that Rubio was a Tea Party extremist. But lately Crist has too often given off the image of a candidate who, instead of taking the principled and pragmatic stands he promised as a centrist independent, is doing somersaults on issues from offshore oil drilling to gay adoption in order to win votes. "Charlie Crist," Rubio says in a new TV ad, has "flip-flopped on everything from the stimulus to Obamacare."

At the same time, the 39-year-old Rubio has played it smart and patient, riding the growing anti-Obama wave — on Friday he starts a Road to Reclaim America bus tour of the state — while hammering home his smaller-government agenda and building a campaign war chest of more than $16 million (compared with about $10 million for Crist). He also got an assist last month when the Florida GOP trumpeted an audit that accused Crist of misusing party funds but was conveniently mum about similar complaints surrounding Rubio's use of his own party-issued AmEx card, which the IRS is investigating.

Whatever Crist's mistakes have been, a Quinnipiac University poll released Sept. 30 puts Rubio ahead of him by a 46%-to-33% margin among likely voters. A CNN–TIME–Opinion Research poll puts it at 42% to 31%, while a survey out this week has Rubio winning 39% to 33%. (Meek garners only 18% in the Quinnipiac and Zogby polls and 23% in the TIME poll.) A big factor: in the Quinnipiac poll, Rubio captures 83% of Republicans, a sign that Crist is not poaching as many moderate GOP voters as he had hoped he would, and 40% of the state's large cache of independent voters, who make up a fifth of Florida's electorate and appear to be leaning rightward in this election cycle. Crist gets 45% of independents but will need more than half of them by Nov. 2.

Crist, who in the Orlando debate pledged to "crash the right-wing Tea Party" and blasted Rubio for "drinking too much tea," is doing well with Florida Democrats — 46% of them in the Quinnipiac poll, in fact, compared with just 43% for Meek. But therein may actually lie his Achilles' heel, says George Gonzalez, a Florida politics expert at the University of Miami. If Crist owns almost half the field of likely Democratic voters but still trails Rubio, it indicates that fewer Sunshine State Democrats than he needs are likely to vote. "There's not much enthusiasm among the center-left base for this election," says Gonzalez. "There's a lot of disillusionment and demoralization inside that left and moderate-left vote, which Crist and Meek are dividing right now." (Indeed, this week the Sierra Club gave Crist and Meek an unusual "co-endorsement.")

As a result, say most analysts, Crist's best hopes are twofold. More Florida Dems will have to "get scared into voting against Rubio," says Gonzalez. Even more important, Crist needs a big slice of Dems and independents who back Meek to reach the conclusion that a Meek victory isn't happening and change their votes to Crist (something national Democratic leaders may now be hoping for themselves). If they don't, Rubio is certain to reap a Tea Party triumph — and Crist, after his promising upstart spring, faces a long political winter.