Florida governor Crist goes from GOP leading light to party pariah

Once considered a shoo-in as the next U.S. senator from Florida, Crist's moderate views have made him a target for "tea party" activists and the GOP's right wing.
By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

THE VILLAGES, FLA. -- Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, once regarded as a shoo-in to become Florida's next senator, waded into a milling crowd. If his campaign had been going according to plan, the audience here would have been perfect: an elderly, largely conservative throng that included 82-year-old Bob Gammon, who had voted for Crist before and now had a beer in hand and something he wanted to say.

Crist smiled and put a campaign sticker on Gammon's Hawaiian shirt.

"That hug," Gammon said.

"Oh," Crist said, immediately understanding what Gammon meant. Shortly after Barack Obama's inauguration, the new president had come to Florida to pledge federal help for this economically reeling state -- and Crist had reacted by embracing Obama on stage. "I wish you hadn't hugged him," Gammon said.

"I'm glad I did," Crist said calmly, smoothing the sticker on Gammon's shirt. "He was visiting our state. He's the president. I respect the office."

"I really wish you hadn't," Gammon said. As he moved away, leaving Crist to answer more questions about the hug, Gammon predicted the outcome of the August Republican primary: "He can't win."

If you're Charlie Crist, this is what a political freefall feels like. One day it is 2008, and you're a popular governor whose Republican admirers are talking you up for the veep spot on your party's national ticket. Then, suddenly, you've infuriated party conservatives, what you're being fitted for is a political coffin, and you're deciding whether to leave the GOP and run as an independent.

According to polls, Crist was once ahead by about 30 points in a primary contest widely viewed as a certain rout, a steppingstone toward a bigger national stage and a White House run. Now, targeted for extinction by "tea party" activists and the right wing of his party, he is behind by more than 20 points to challenger Marco Rubio.

It is yet another reminder of the intraparty dangers awaiting candidates viewed as not conservative enough. From Arizona, where Sen. John McCain faces a tough primary race, to Texas, where Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison failed in her bid to unseat Gov. Rick Perry, Republicans are also facing an anti-establishment fervor that is threatening once-popular political veterans.

"A victim of the times" is how Susan A. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, characterizes Crist's collapse.

Questions about his political character and loyalty have added to Crist's woes. He was dealt another blow this past week when former New York mayor Rudolph A. Giuliani went on Fox News to say that Crist had lied to him in the months leading up to the Republican presidential primaries in 2008.

Giuliani asserted that Crist, whose endorsement was regarded by GOP candidates as critical in the pivotal Florida primary, had reneged on a private promise to endorse him for the Republican nomination. It is a charge denied by Crist, who ultimately endorsed McCain, the party's eventual nominee.

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