Crist Dances Around GOP Endorsement

Nov 12, 2007

Tampa Tribune, 11/12/2007

For Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani, Florida looms larger and larger as a crucial steppingstone on his path to winning the nomination.
But he doesn’t have, and may never get, one key piece of help that could boost him in the Sunshine State: an endorsement from Gov. Charlie Crist.

Crist won’t say whether he intends to take sides in the race in the 12 weeks remaining before Florida’s Jan. 29 primary. But it looks more and more like he won’t.

State politics – particularly the continuing struggle over property taxes – are getting in the way.

Crist’s endorsement or lack of one may not be decisive. Giuliani has maintained a substantial lead in Florida polls for several months.

He has been aided by John McCain’s financial problems, which slowed the campaign of the former front-runner. He weathered Fred Thompson’s entry into the race, and so far, has held off the determined campaign of Mitt Romney.

Giuliani, though, needs a convincing win in Florida because he’s not likely to pull off big wins in the other "early states" – states that hold the first primaries – in January.

The Florida ‘Slingshot’

Although Giuliani leads in polls nationwide, Romney leads in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. South Carolina appears in polls to be a virtual three-way tie among Giuliani, Romney and Thompson.

That leaves only Florida on Jan. 29 to restore Giuliani’s momentum and air of inevitability before the biggest day of the primary season, Feb. 5. On that day, when 22 states hold primaries, most experts expect both parties’ nominations will be, in effect, decided.

"Florida is the slingshot state into Feb. 5," said former Gov. Bob Martinez, a Giuliani backer. "If Giuliani won Florida by the margins he’s holding right now, it’s a big story."

If Giuliani doesn’t clinch the nomination on Feb. 5, it opens up the possibility of an indecisive primary season and a nomination decided at the convention – something that hasn’t happened in either party in decades.

Crist hasn’t ruled out picking a candidate to endorse in the primary. Some political allies continue to urge him to make an endorsement and get involved in the campaign; if he picked the eventual winner, he would reap big political IOUs.

In early spring, Crist told the Tribune he "probably" would endorse a candidate, but that he wouldn’t do so until after the Legislature dealt with his crucial business: property tax and property insurance reform.

Choosing one candidate would risk alienating supporters of the others at a time when he needed help from all Republicans to pass his legislative initiatives.

Since then, however, the legislative session that was supposed to end in May has stretched into three special sessions to deal with difficult issues: no-fault auto insurance, state budget shortfalls, and – most important and most difficult – property tax reform efforts.

The property tax issue remains unsettled.

A divided Legislature barely managed to agree Oct. 29 on a tax cut proposal to put on the Jan. 29 ballot, including measures Crist has advocated.

The proposal has been criticized by the state’s largest unions and a key anti-tax advocacy group. Even the support of some Republican legislative leaders who passed the measure, including state House Speaker Marco Rubio, is tepid.

If the measure fails, it would leave Crist vulnerable to accusations that he hasn’t fulfilled his most important campaign promises to cut property tax and property insurance rates. He may want to preserve his political capital to get the tax measure passed, rather than spending it on a presidential candidate.

"Whether I will or will not – I haven’t really reached a total conclusion," Crist said recently when asked again whether he’ll endorse. "It’s important for me to stay focused on my job."

Rudy’s Camp Remains Confident

In a recent interview, Giuliani’s deputy political director, Rick Wiley, stuck to the campaign’s contention Giuliani is "in a great position in the early states. I fully expect us to come out of the early states in a good position."

He wouldn’t forecast wins in any of them, though, something Romney doesn’t hesitate to do in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"We would welcome the governor’s endorsement, but to my knowledge, there is not an endorsement," Wiley said of Crist.

Top Giuliani supporters who are friends with Crist also deny they have pressured the governor to get involved.

"I didn’t get on the team without making him aware of who I was going to be with, and he had no objection," said Tampa developer Al Austin, a prominent GOP fundraiser backing Giuliani. But he hasn’t tried to recruit Crist: "He’s had special sessions one after the other, and now he’s off to Brazil."