Almost overnight, the Florida Republican Party has gone from being Charlie Crist's PR machine to Charlie Crist's archenemy.
Since the lifelong Republican announced last week he was running for the U.S. Senate as a nonpartisan candidate, the Florida GOP has been singularly focused on attacking Gov. Crist, casting him as a phony, a traitor who all but destroyed the state party. The era of Crist and his handpicked former chairman Jim Greer, the party suggests, was a dark and dismal period for the GOP.
"Charlie Crist deserted the Republican Party he ruined by giving his corrupt friend Jim Greer free reign (sic) over Party spending,'' says a new website, www.CantTrustCharlie.com, unveiled by the party Tuesday. "Charlie Crist created this mess, and now he's running from it. Charlie Crist can't be trusted. You can help us defeat Charlie Crist. You can help us rebuild the Party he tried to destroy!"
The harsh tone underscores not only the bitterness party officials feel toward their former standard-bearer, but their worry about his nonpartisan bid's potential.
"It's a competitive seat that we want to see held by a Republican candidate, and we're going to work hard to see that happen,'' said GOP spokeswoman Katie Betta, who spent much of the past year denying allegations of improper financial activity at the party under Greer.
"Some of the things that have come to light, it's horrible what was happening here under their leadership. Now that both Jim Greer and Charlie Crist are gone, we're left to pick up the pieces,'' said Betta, a former speechwriter for Crist.
Greer said in an e-mail he was proud of his accomplishments over two terms as party chairman.
"I am also grateful to Governor Crist for his support in raising millions of dollars for the Republican Party and working with me in reaching out to minority voters and making our party a more inclusive party and a party driven by ideas and not anger or personal attacks as it is today,'' Greer said. "No matter what distortions of fact or lies that are told for political gain by the current RPOF leadership, the many accomplishments made over the last three years stand on their own."
The party also put an oil painting of Crist for sale on eBay this week, one of several paintings purchased or commissioned during Greer's tenure.
"A twin painting is known to exist. Also produced and purchased by the Crist/Greer Administration, this second painting depicts former Republican Party of Florida Chairman James A. Greer, Charlie Crist's close personal friend and twice hand-picked leader of the Florida GOP,'' says the listing. "The combined value of both pieces is thought to be priceless, given that together Charlie Crist and Jim Greer aided in the swift demise of the Republican Party of Florida's public stature and financial security."
The level of vitriol is stunning given the goodwill Crist enjoyed among party activists for more than two decades, serving as a state senator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor. Now the governor who made it on John McCain's vice presidential short list is a pariah.
"I think it's sad. I think it indicates part of the problem that we have in politics today — this constant bickering and attacking,'' Crist said of the harsh attacks Tuesday while flying over the Gulf of Mexico to survey the oil spill. "I think it sickens the people, and we need to do better than that and rise above it."
Some observers say the blistering attacks could actually help Crist, bolstering his argument that he puts people above partisan politics.
"The Republican Party of Florida may dislike Charlie Crist, but its attacks are helping his campaign,'' said Democratic strategist Chris Hand of Jacksonville. "Crist's game plan is to be seen as an independent leader rising above partisan politics for the good of the state. Every time his former party attacks him, it makes him seem more independent."
Republican strategist Kirk Fordham of Miami, a Crist supporter, said the attacks could help the governor win over more Democrats.
"The more vitriol they spew at Crist, the more likely Democratic voters are to support Charlie Crist in the general election,'' said Fordham, who attended a Miami fundraiser Sunday that included prominent Democratic trial lawyers alongside prominent Republicans such as former Senate President Ken Pruitt.
Underscoring the dramatic turn in the race, the leading Republican candidate in the Senate race, Marco Rubio, was in Washington on Tuesday meeting with party elites while Crist was preparing to move his campaign headquarters from Tallahassee to downtown St. Petersburg. Crist also started reaching out to the kind of low-dollar donors that sustained Rubio early on.
In an e-mail solicitation, Crist requested "$10, $25, $50, or even more — whatever you can afford. Every dollar makes a huge difference. With your support, we'll be one step closer to successfully challenging the political gridlock in Washington by putting people above politics."
Crist said he signed up "thousands of new volunteers" and "received contributions from more than 800 new supporters" and "received thousands of positive comments through the website and Facebook and have seen our highest Internet traffic ever!"
An automated poll by Rasmussen Reports released Tuesday showed a dead heat race, with Crist receiving 38 percent support among likely Florida voters, Rubio 34 percent and Democratic front-runner Kendrick Meek at 17 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percent, and the poll found 62 percent approved of Crist's performance as governor, a 6 point jump since April.
Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.