Ring, ring. The new conservative Charlie Crist is calling.
With a calm shrug or a smile, Gov. Charlie Crist and his supporters haven’t seemed too rattled about all the buzz, blogs and straw polls showing that conservatives seem more fed up with him and more fond of his Republican rival in the U.S. Senate, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
Privately, though, Crist seems a little more worried.
Though he’s well ahead in fundraising and support in the polls, Crist and his campaign staff have been calling Republican party chiefs throughout the state to figure out why some conservatives are fed up with him, how to defend his decisions, and how to turn on the charm.
Brevard County Republican Executive Committee Jason Steele got hit by the charm offensive two weeks ago as he vacationed in Aruba. He missed a call on his cell phone from an unknown number, dialed it back and started chatting with the friendly and familiar-sounding guy on the other line for a few moments before he realized it was Crist.
“The governor is paying attention. He’s spending a tremendous amount of time reaching out. That’s positive,” Steele said. “It’s good when you have a primary. It forces politicians to pay attention and listen more closely to what people are saying.”
Steele said the governor has a chance to communicate his commitment to conservatives by making a good pick to replace U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, who’s retiring.
But at the time Crist was calling, he wanted to know whom Steele favored to fill a Fifth District Court of Appeal vacancy, which was part of a judicial controversy that riled conservatives. Steele recommended Circuit Judge Bruce Waldron Jacobus, who could have been appointed months before. But Jacobus is white, as were the other short-listers, and Crist held out for a minority slate of candidates until the Supreme Court said no.
So Crist picked Jacobus on Aug. 4 (eschewing two women, incidentally, which seems pretty common for Crist, according to this Orlando Sentinel piece.)
Steele called Crist the next day to say thanks. And Crist started to ask him about his problems among conservatives. Steele said conservatives thought Crist made too liberal a pick in tapping James E.C. Perry (who used to sit on the 18th Circuit with Waldron, by the way) to the Florida Supreme Court.
“Jason, I don’t know if you know, but Justice Perry was a Jeb Bush appointment. If was he right for Jeb Bush, why isn’t he right for you?” Crist asked.
Steele mentioned the stimulus. Crist said he had to aggressively seek the money because it was best for the state.
“It was tough to argue with. Even though I hate it, the stimulus package, it’s a good point,” Steele says.
Still, Steele persisted, saying it seemed to many that Crist wasn’t conservative enough.
“I’m as conservative as any governor. I’m chain gang Charlie. I’m pro-gun. I’m pro-life,” Crist said. “He used the Charlie Crist charm. He’s got work to do and I think he’s doing it.”
Hillsborough’s Republican Party chair, Deborah Cox-Roush, said the calls and temperature-taking from Crist are nothing new. “He’s always reaching out,” she said.
But over in Pasco County, after Rubio walloped Crist in a straw poll of Republicans this summer, a Crist campaign staffer called county party chief Randy Maggard. He recounted the litany of Crist’s transgressions, including the Supreme Court pick and his literal embrace of Barack Obama and the Democrats’ stimulus package.
“That picture is etched in our minds. The base is really fed up with this,” said Maggard.
At ground zero for the Crist-Obama manhug, Lee County, the head of the party said Crist’s term has marked two years of disappointment. As a result, Rubio soundly beat Crist in a straw poll there, prompting a call from the Crist staff.
“The support for the governor has plummeted significantly,” Lee said. “A big reason might be that his governance has not been from the conservative side of the political spectrum. It has been left of center.”
Lee said the chat was friendly but honest.
“They were taking the temperature of Republicans,” he said. “I told them it has cooled substantially.”