Charlie Crist is threading a needle — successfully so far — in trying to build a coalition of enough Democratic, Republican and independent supporters to pull off an unprecedented nonpartisan statewide victory.
But as Gov. Crist reaches out more and more to Democratic voters, he's in danger of alienating Republicans he still needs to win the U.S. Senate race.
The man who for years touted his conservatism has in recent weeks vetoed an anti-abortion bill; applauded the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan, after opposing Sonia Sotomayor when he was a Republican; reversed course and said he supports repealing "don't ask, don't tell"; consistently praised President Barack Obama's response to the BP oil catastrophe; and endorsed a redistricting reform proposal reviled by most Republican leaders in Florida.
"I was certainly hoping to support my hometown Republican, but I was expecting that he would still hew to core Republican principles. Most of the positions that he's taken since he became independent have been too left for me,'' said St. Petersburg lawyer Rob Eschenfelder, who plans to vote "with very little enthusiasm" for Republican Marco Rubio.
"I don't want that Senate seat to be handed over to the Democrats — be that an open Democrat or someone who acts like one."
The governor's special assistant in South Florida recently resigned over Crist attending a campaign fundraiser attended by business leaders who back lifting sanctions on Cuba.
"I appreciate the opportunity that I have had to represent the governor in South Florida,'' said Chris Miles, 20, who previously worked for Sen. George LeMieux and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. "However his decision to accept campaign contributions from business associates of the Castro regime has prompted my resignation.''
Crist is counting on overwhelming support from independent voters and strong support from Democrats, but he can't afford to alienate too many Republicans. Independents are expected to make up no more than 15 percent of the electorate, after all, while Republicans consistently have the strongest turnout in nonpresidential election years.
A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month showed the governor narrowly leading a three-way race with 37 percent support, compared to 33 percent for Rubio and 17 percent for Democrat Kendrick Meek. Crist had the support of 28 percent of Republicans, 37 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents.
"He's not going to win the very, very right Republicans anyway, and he may not win the very, very left Democrats, but he's got the center all locked up,'' said Republican businessman Fazal Fazlin, a Republican who hosted a St. Petersburg fundraiser for Crist this week that drew more than 250 people — far more than a previous fundraiser held when the governor was a Republican. "I think he has an excellent chance."
Thanks largely to the oil spill, Crist has been on a roll. Every day seems to bring new images of him surveying North Florida beaches. Rubio, meanwhile, has looked less like an insurgent superstar than a politician appearing on Fox News day after day talking about how much he supports offshore drilling.
"The oil spill has been a godsend for Charlie Crist. It's kept him on TV and on the front page of every newspaper, with furrowed brow and open collar," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Republican strategist and lobbyist who is supporting Crist even though "many of the positions he's taken lately bother me."
Stipanovich suspects moderate Republicans will stick with Crist when faced with the alternatives of Rubio and either Meek or Jeff Greene as the Democrat. Ultimately the calculation is that many Democrats will conclude Crist is the only viable choice to beat Rubio.
No way, says Meek.
"I'm the only major candidate of the four that hasn't run as a Republican in the past and I believe that's going to mean something,'' the Miami Democrat said. "In the final analysis, Democrats are going to look for someone who they know is going to stand firm. I am so firm on the issues that Democrats care about. So when you start looking at these issues, it would be very hard for Crist to say, 'I'm with you' and for folks to actually believe it."
That's part of the Rubio strategy, to cast Crist as a self-serving politician with no core beliefs who can't be trusted.
"Charlie Crist is not the kind of guy you want with you in trench hole regardless of what party you're from,'' said Republican consultant Ana Navarro. "You can't pander to all of the people all of the time. And if you've decided to pander to Democrats you're absolutely antagonizing Republicans and vice versa."
The problem with that theory is voters already know politicians are self-serving. People like Charlie Crist anyway. His trick is to avoid moving too far in either direction, where partisanship can trump his personal appeal.
Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.