Four years ago, when Charlie Crist campaigned for governor in the gated villages of southeast Florida, he boasted that he expected to win two terms. By 2008, he was touring those retirement communities with Republican presidential candidate John McCain as a rising star in the party under consideration for a vice presidential bid.
Now, as he runs for the U.S. Senate, Crist is returning to Kings Point’s manmade lakes and shuffleboard courts to plead with the retirees to support him again -- this time trailing in the polls and without the Republican Party behind him.
“I am an independent candidate for the United States Senate; I need the people,” the governor told a crowd at the Kings Point clubhouse in Tamarac. “It’s almost like jumping out of an airplane and not knowing if you have a parachute.”
Crist’s descent, and his uphill run as a candidate willing to compromise in a year defined by partisan combat, may be the nation’s best barometer of the voter anger facing both parties in a struggling economy.
“About a year ago I had predicted he would end up running as an independent, but I thought he would win,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “Now, I just don’t see him getting much traction.”
Abandoning the Party
Crist, 54, has seen his approval ratings plummet since he abandoned the Republican Party in April after lagging behind Marco Rubio, a former Florida House speaker backed by the Tea Party movement, in the campaign for the Republican Senate nomination. Polls now show Crist about 12 points behind Rubio in the general election and with an 8-point lead over four-term congressman Kendrick Meek, the Democratic candidate.
Like other incumbents across the U.S., Crist was blamed by voters for the weak economy. Florida was one of only two states, along with Maryland, to see its unemployment rate rise in August, reaching 11.7 percent, compared with the 9.6 percent national rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, behind Nevada, more than twice the national average, according to RealtyTrac, an Irvine, California-based data provider.
Crist, who won the 2006 governor’s race with 52 percent of the vote, also drew ire from Republicans for his willingness to work with Democrats on judicial appointments and environmental issues. These included blocking a coal-fired power plant from being built near the Everglades and convening a climate-change summit -- stances that won him the nickname “governor green.”
Across the Aisle
Unlike Democratic and Republican incumbents who have tried to rally their base by promising to either support or block the White House agenda, Crist says he’ll work with both parties.
It’s a message he has taken all over the state of 18.5 million people, from the vote-rich Democratic retirement communities lining the east coast, to Republicans in his home base of St. Petersburg, and even into the Hispanic community in Miami -- a stronghold for Rubio, 39, a Cuban-American, and Meek, 44, a black lawmaker.
Under a silver tinsel Star of David hanging above the stage at Temple Beth Shalom in the Century Village community west of Boca Raton, Crist, a former state attorney general and legislator, criticized Congress’s lack of action on immigration and Social Security, and for its health-care law.
“There are things we could do to improve all these things if we simply put you first,” he told 300 retirees, who yelled for him to speak louder as they ate a catered kosher breakfast of bagels and coffee cake.
‘A National Statement’
As a sign of bipartisanship, Crist touted an endorsement by Robert Wexler, a seven-term former Democratic congressman from the area who’s so beloved by retirees that three times he ran unopposed.
That’s a statement neither party wants to see. Both Democrats and Republicans have poured money and manpower into this swing state. And Crist has seen his fundraising drop without the support of the Republican Party.
Rubio raised $4.5 million in the April-June quarter, more than double the $2.1 million collected by Crist, according to U.S. Federal Election Commission reports. Independent groups have also been active: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $1 million on advertising against Crist, and American Crossroads, a political action committee tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove, has spent almost $250,000 on pro-Rubio mailings, FEC reports show.
Bush Backs Rubio
Crist “just doesn’t have much of an organizational foundation anymore without the party,” said deHaven-Smith.
Rubio does. Former Governor Jeb Bush, an adviser to the Republican nominee, built a voter-turnout operation to support his brother’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. And Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign developed the Democratic infrastructure that brought record numbers of blacks to the polls. Democrats hope to rally those voters on behalf of Meek, with visits by Vice President Joe Biden, former Vice President Al Gore, and former President Bill Clinton.
At a Sept. 23 meeting of the Miami-Dade teachers union, Meek asked the audience to remember their “true blue friend.”
Some teachers and other Democrats have tried to hedge their bets by cultivating Crist, who they say has a better shot of beating Rubio. In May, the Florida Education Association jointly endorsed both candidates, citing Crist’s veto of a Republican bill that would have made it easier to fire teachers.
‘On the Line’
“I’m leaning towards Crist because he went out on the line for us at a time we needed him,” said Seth Patterson, 34, an elementary school music teacher in Miami-Dade County.
Meek said in an interview that Crist is “standing on a bubble.” The Democrat has gained support since defeating Jeff Greene, a billionaire investor, to win the Democratic primary in August and leads Crist among Democrats by 7 points, according to a September Mason-Dixon poll.
Some troops are falling in line for Meek. “I’m here to give all the support for Democrats,” said Daphne Campbell, a Haitian-American state representative from the heavily Haitian section of northeast Miami.
While Democrats hustle for votes, Rubio is riding a tide of voter frustration with the economy. He’s a favorite of the Tea Party, a collection of activists who oppose big government. And he has been embraced by Republican Party officials.
Rubio stresses the urgency of blocking the Democratic agenda on taxes, spending and health care. Still, he’s careful not to go too far.
“I’m not an anarchist; there’s an important role for government to play,” he said, amid booths selling rifles, shotguns and ammunition at a Fort Myers gun show. “But when you go beyond what government should be doing, you end up hurting our country.”
Earlier that day, a crowd of Republicans surrounded Rubio as he made his way into the windowless backrooms of the party headquarters in Broward County.
“The Republican establishment did not endorse me,” Rubio said. “I said I’m getting in this race because no one else running will be someone who will stand up to Washington.”
That appeals to Republicans.
“You don’t feel like you can trust a moderate,” said Matthew Parkman, 32, a Republican business school student laid off from his job as a land surveyor earlier this year. “Crist was a grit-your-teeth kind of vote.”
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