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Watch the dominoes if Charlie Crist runs for the U.S. Senate

Enough about President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. Gov. Charlie Crist is poised to deliver Florida a gigantic political stimulus package.

If the governor decides next month to run for the U.S. Senate rather than re-election, as is widely expected, get ready for the wildest election cycle Florida has seen in modern history: five races for open statewide offices. That, in turn, leads to a dizzying number of other offices opening up as politicians jump for newly opened opportunities for promotion.

"It would be the mother of all domino effects,'' said Republican strategist Brett Doster of Tallahassee.

Imagine Tampa Bay watching local favorites like Republican Charlie Crist run for U.S. Senate, Democrat Alex Sink run for governor, Republican St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker run for governor and Democratic Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio run for chief financial officer. It's not so far-fetched given the vast number of politicians waiting to see if Crist utters the word "Senate."

If Crist stays put in Tallahassee the political landscape is pretty much status quo — an unpredictable U.S. Senate race and an open race for agriculture commissioner, but mainly statewide incumbents like Crist, Chief Financial Officer Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum favored to win re-election bids.

But until Crist declares the conventional wisdom about him aiming for Washington wrong, local, state and federal politicians from Panama City to Miami are looking at a campaign cycle that could pit three Cabinet members against each other for governor, reshuffle leadership in the Legislature, and open up some of Florida most competitive congressional seats.

"Every day they're in my lobby, and I say 'Are you running for Senate, governor or attorney general?' '' laughed state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, who won't say what he expects from Crist but nonetheless just commissioned a poll of a governor's race without Crist. (The upshot at this early stage: a close contest between McCollum and Sink.)

For Greer the stakes are especially high. Getting Charlie Crist elected to whatever office he wishes is priority one, but Greer may require far fewer Rolaids if Crist stays in Tallahassee.

Because if Crist jumps, Florida Democrats have a very real shot at picking off the governor's mansion — many Republicans view Sink as the favorite for governor — and at least another Cabinet post, like attorney general should McCollum run for governor, as expected.

Crist running for Senate, in other words, could result in Democrats gaining more control in statewide offices than they've enjoyed in 12 years, when Lawton Chiles was closing the curtain on Democratic power in Florida. And to control the governor's office after 2010 has long-term implications, because the governor has major sway over how legislative and congressional lines are drawn for reapportionment.

GOP strategist Doster said the economy and political climate should have Florida Republicans worried no matter what.

"You look at Charlie Crist's election numbers from last time (a narrower win than Jeb Bush's), at the gains Democrats have made recently, a significant national fundraising advantage for Democrats and the probability that Barack Obama and company are going to park themselves in Florida for the last 12 months of the election, we're going to have real challenges on our hands regardless what Charlie does."

With so many potential offices up for grabs, a big question for both parties is whether they can avoid bruising primary battles.

"Opportunities like this don't come along every election cycle," said Chris Hand, a Jacksonville attorney and longtime Democratic strategist. "If Charlie Crist runs for the U.S. Senate, Democrats need to make sure that our best and brightest are primed to run and don't face divisive primaries."

Greer said he feels comfortable that the bench of Republican candidates is strong enough to hold or take the Cabinet posts of attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner, and his top priorities are getting Crist elected to whatever office he seeks and, if it comes open, to keep the governor's office in Republican hands.

"I think the Republican nominee, if it is the right nominee, has great opportunity to win that race, although it will be close," Greer said.

With a vast field of potential candidates largely devoid of political giants, many students of Florida politics see a cycle ripe for a surprise candidate. If ever there was an opportunity for a political newcomer to shake things up, say a wealthy businessman without political experience, this is the time.

"The history of Florida says watch out for the guys you haven't heard of,'' said Republican lobbyist John French.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Faces trying to stay in front of the eight ball

Governor

Bill McCollum After three state campaigns, the attorney general is the GOP front- runner

Jeff Kottkamp With travel expense questions, it's unclear Crist's No. 2 could win dog catcher

Charles Bronson Not well known outside agriculture, but can boast the most state experience

Marco Rubio The former House speaker is mainly looking at the Senate

Allan Bense The former House speaker has long mulled a state campaign

Vern Buchanan The congressman has deep pockets and a Tampa Bay base

Rick Baker A wild card

Alex Sink The CFO is queen of the Florida Dems and unlikely to draw any credible primary foe

Attorney general

Marco Rubio, may be his best statewide shot

Rick Baker

Jeff Kottkamp

Adam Hasner

George LeMieux

Tom Grady

Rod Smith, if he'd run in '06, many think he would've won

Dave Aronberg

Ron Klein

Ted Deutch

Dan Gelber

U.S. Senate

Charlie Crist , if anybody's unbeatable, it's Crist.

Marco Rubio, The staunch conservative alternative could be the darling of the right

Dan Gelber The state senator is well-respected but starting slow

Kendrick Meek The congressman is roaring out of the gate with strong fundraising, endorsements

Kevin Burns The North Miami mayor; in a word: who?

Pam Iorio The Tampa mayor's profile and geographic base could make her a contender, but little known and has fire- in-the-belly questions

Ron Klein A telegenic congressman and champion fundraiser feared by plenty of Republicans





Chief financial officer

Jeff Atwater The Senate president can raise loads of money and could clear the field

Pam Iorio Many think Tampa's mayor hopes Alex Sink runs for governor, setting her up for a shot at CFO

Ted Deutch little- known but well- regarded South Florida senator

Watch the dominoes if Charlie Crist runs for the U.S. Senate 04/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009 11:09am]

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