Gov. Charlie Crist’s clout rises with primary vote

Jan 31, 2008

Gov. Charlie Crist’s clout rises with primary vote

John Kennedy

Tallahassee Bureau Chief

January 31, 2008–Orlando Sentinel


If there was any question about who is the most popular — and powerful — political figure in Florida right now, Gov. Charlie Crist has put it to rest.

In helping push Arizona Sen. John McCain to the top of the Republican presidential heap, and virtually single-handedly powering the Amendment 1 property-tax cut to victory Tuesday night, Crist demonstrated his clout with voters.

And the real payoff for Florida’s governor is still to come, analysts and state lawmakers said Wednesday.

“You’ve got to believe that with these wins, all of a sudden Charlie Crist is ‘da man,’ ” said David Johnson, a Tallahassee consultant and former state Republican Party executive director.

Crist’s last-minute endorsement of McCain is heightening Internet buzz about him as a potential vice-presidential pick.

Many analysts downplay the prospect, saying the centrist Crist would provide no counterweight to a Republican ticket topped by the middle-of-the-road McCain.

But that hasn’t stopped the talk.

“He’ll be a guy the Republicans and the media mentions when it comes to who could be McCain’s running mate,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

“He’ll be on the short list. McCain-Crist isn’t a good match. But that doesn’t matter for the governor. He’ll still get his name talked about, and for a politician that’s plenty.”

At the very least, Crist is expected to campaign across the country for McCain, possibly beginning this week as McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney prepare themselves for next week’s Super Tuesday contests.

Crist also is likely to get a major speaking role at this summer’s Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., should McCain capture the nomination.

Typically, Crist on Wednesday downplayed his role, saying that it’s “very flattering” to be talked up in national circles but that he was mostly pleased McCain had won. He said he was willing to campaign anywhere for McCain.

“I’m sure all of America is very nice this time of year,” Crist said, adding, “but not as nice as Florida.”

But the governor will have plenty to keep him busy in Tallahassee, with state budget woes threatening to dim his popularity with voters.

Lawmakers will be forced to cut at least $2 billion from next year’s state budget because of the faltering economy.

A first step comes today, when he plans to unveil his $70 billion spending recommendation.

“The budget will test his optimism, and maybe even his popularity,” said House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

Crist’s endorsement of McCain the weekend before Tuesday’s vote clearly helped.

Exit polls Tuesday night showed 42 percent of Republican voters said the governor’s backing was an important factor in their decision.

“I think Crist has got some kind of special gene for retail politics,” Johnson said. “The timing of his endorsement was perfect for McCain.”

McCain, who polls showed was in a dead heat with Romney heading into the weekend, beat him by 5 percentage points to win Florida’s 57 delegates and emerge as the Republican front-runner.

The property-tax amendment also carried Crist’s imprint. The governor raised more than $4 million for the campaign and promoted it in television ads and on billboards.

With 64 percent voter approval, the amendment easily cleared the 60 percent threshold needed to become law, underscoring his salesmanship and what supporters say is Floridians’ trust in Crist.

The win also could quiet the most conservative wing of the Florida Republican Party, where leaders such as House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and other allies of former Gov. Jeb Bush have offered veiled criticism of Crist’s conservative credentials.

“Crist was the face of the Amendment 1 campaign, and he helped McCain win Florida,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City.

“I think the old ‘Jebbies’ and the conservatives in the House should remember that when they try to push the party further to the right, saying that this is where most Republicans want to be,” he added.

Geller said Crist shares his view that “the candidate that wins Florida in the fall is the one who plays best to the middle.”

Former House Speaker Allan Bense, a Panama City Republican, had told a statewide conference call organized by the Romney campaign last Saturday that Crist’s endorsement of McCain would likely drive conservative Republicans toward Romney.

But on Wednesday, Bense said he was wrong — and said he would apologize to Crist.

“I think he carried that football over the goal line,” said Bense, now chairman of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.