Will Charlie Crist be Florida's Arlen Specter?

By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Can Charlie Crist accomplish in Florida what Arlen Specter failed to do in Pennsylvania -- woo Democrats to his cause after bolting the GOP to avoid a tough primary?

In a way, comparing Crist to Specter is a little unfair ... to Arlen Specter. Just three months ago Crist declared himself a "common-sense conservative" who believed in the principles of Ronald Reagan. Specter never made any pretense of being a conservative. He voted with Senate Democrats when it suited his interests, and his transition to the Democratic Party did not require many uncomfortable conversions on hot-button issues like abortion.

Crist, by contrast, has shown an ideological flexibility that makes Specter look like a conviction politician. During the GOP primary, Crist campaigned as a pro-life Republican, and his campaign Web site declared "Governor Crist believes strongly in the sanctity of human life." After he left the GOP, the pro-life page on his Web site mysteriously disappeared -- and Crist vetoed a pro-life bill that would have required Florida abortion providers to allow women to see an ultrasound of their unborn child and would have had Florida opt out of taxpayer-funded abortions under Obamacare.

Crist reversed course on education reform. After declaring his support in March for a Republican bill to end teacher tenure and tie pay raises to student achievement, Crist turned around a few weeks later and vetoed the bill -- angering the GOP while ingratiating himself with the left-leaning Florida teachers union. (He has since hinted that he has an "open mind" when it comes to union "card-check" legislation).

Crist flipped on the Cuba travel ban. In his 2006 race for governor, he blasted his opponent for backing efforts to ease restrictions on family visits to Cuba, and he later signed legislation raising taxes on companies that arranged such travel. And just last month, when asked by a Florida paper if he would support easing travel restrictions to Cuba, Crist replied: "No, I wouldn't. Not until they offer more freedoms to their own people first." But just a few weeks later, Crist announced his support for the Obama administration's decision to lift all restrictions on family travel to Cuba, and he held a fundraiser with advocates of lifting the Cuba travel ban entirely, declaring "I want to listen to what they have to say."

Crist also reversed himself on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Just three days after declaring, "I think the current policy has worked pretty well for America. I really do. So I don't know why there's any need for change at this time," Crist announced he'd support a Senate bill that lifts "don't ask, don't tell" after a Pentagon study is completed. Crist also announced he no longer supports a Florida law that bans gay adoptions.

The audacity of Crist's ideological transformation is stunning. The question is: Will it work? Unlike Specter, Crist is running as an independent, so he does not have to win a Democratic primary. But to defeat Republican Marco Rubio in November, Crist cannot depend on independents to carry him to victory -- he must win over Democratic voters. For the moment he appears to be doing so. A recent Mason Dixon poll shows that Crist leads Rep. Kendrick Meek by 48 to 36 percent among Democrats, who make up half of Crist's supporters. But as Mason Dixon pollster Brad Coker explained, Crist's support among Democrats is "a proverbial house of cards." Meek is still unknown to 40 percent of Florida voters, and Coker says that as Meek's name recognition rises, Crist's Democratic support will likely slip. If Meek wins the nomination, Democrats are likely to come home in November.

The wild card is Jeff Greene, an eccentric, self-funding billionaire who jumped into the Democratic primary and has pulled even with Meek in the polls. Greene has a lot of money, but a lot of baggage as well. Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss once lived in his guest house, the best man at his wedding was convicted rapist Mike Tyson, and he got rich betting on the collapse of the housing market -- which hit Florida harder than almost any state. Greene has little chance of winning a general election. If he succeeds in winning the nomination, many Florida Democrats could be tempted to vote for Crist in November as the only viable means of stopping Rubio.

Crist is working overtime to make himself palatable to Democrats and independents. But are his ideological contortions so blatant, so mercenary, that voters won't be able to hold their noses and pull the lever for him on Election Day? Crist is turning himself into the caricature of a political opportunist -- and, like Arlen Specter before him, he may find this is not an ideal strategy in a year in which voters are turning on self-serving politicians with a vengeance.

Specter openly declared that he left the GOP because "my change in party will allow me to be re-elected." That gamble didn't pay off in Pennsylvania. It remains to be seen whether it will pay off for Florida's Specter.

Marc A. Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Courting Disaster." He writes a weekly column for http://washingtonpost.com.

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