Most Florida voters want Gov. Charlie Crist to veto an abortion bill that he, too, appears to oppose. They're cool to oil drilling, just like the governor. And they support his decision to veto a controversial "teacher tenure'' bill that the Republican-controlled Legislature wanted signed into law to help reform education.
Whether he's a political weather vane or just a man of the people, Crist's positions are more in line with the majority of Florida voters than with his former Republican colleagues in the state Legislature, according to a new poll of top issues debated in Tallahassee. Ipsos Public Affairs conducted it for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13.
The one issue Crist seems out of step with the electorate: an Arizona-style law that would give state and local police more power to enforce immigration laws.
Buoyed by strong support from Republicans and independents, the poll found 58 percent of registered Florida voters would favor such a law, which wasn't debated in Florida's Legislature this spring. Only 36 percent oppose it, including Crist.
Crist left the Republican primary for U.S. Senate just before the April 30 end of the legislative session. A plurality of Florida voters say it was more of an act of political opportunism than conscience, but they still appear to hold the governor in high regard.
"Charlie Crist seems to be more of a people person,'' said Ronnie McGee, a 42-year-old independent voter from Tampa. "He seems to understand working people. He seems to. What's hard about talking about politicians is that it's like talking about lawyers. You never really know.''
That's especially true when it comes to Crist, his former Republican colleagues say.
Crist favored oil drilling before he opposed it following the Deepwater Horizon accident last month. He led reporters and lawmakers to believe he would support the teacher tenure bill before he vetoed it. And he repeatedly said he was "pro-life'' while he was a Republican, but he now looks ready to veto what he says is a "mean-spirited'' bill that requires women to have, personally pay for and potentially view an ultrasound image before getting an abortion.
"On all those issues, he's been on both sides,'' said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Republican from Indialantic who is slated to lead the Senate next year. "So if you're with him today, you don't know if he'll be with you tomorrow.''
Crist was sure to lose the Republican primary race against former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who had staked out positions well to the right of Crist for years. Rubio and Crist differ over the major issues in the poll, which shows Rubio enjoys his strongest backing among Republicans and Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the Florida electorate.
But Hispanics are the only group in which a majority — 52 percent — said they were "strongly opposed'' to the Arizona-style immigration law. And Hispanic voters like Narcisa Suarez say they're deeply troubled with Rubio for supporting the proposal.
"I'm definitely not going to vote for him now that he says he agrees with the law. Even though he's Hispanic, I'm sorry,'' said Suarez, an 81-year-old Spanish-speaking Republican from Pembroke Pines. "Otherwise I would support him. Hispanics support each other.''
Her sentiment aside, Rubio still leads Crist among Hispanic voters by a ratio of 2-1. Overall, Crist narrowly leads Rubio and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, the front-running Democrat, who is a distant third.
As the legislative session wound down this spring, Crist stepped up his criticism of both Rubio and the Republican legislative leadership, fueling speculation that he plans to use the Legislature as a foil on the campaign trail.
When he vetoed the teacher tenure bill, Crist estranged legislative leaders and his predecessor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who then endorsed Rubio and suggests Crist is a poll-driven pol. Crist, after all, chartered a poll just before he left the Republican primary to see if he had a chance to win the Senate race.
Though Republican leaders reacted with outrage to the tenure bill veto, Republican, Democratic and independent voters seem to favor his decision. Overall, 53 percent of Florida voters supported the veto, while 29 percent were opposed. That's well outside the 4 percentage-point error margin for the poll, which surveyed 607 registered voters and was conducted by telephone May 14-18 for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll was done by Ipsos Public Affairs, a Washington-based independent, nonpartisan research company.
When asked in a Miami Herald editorial board interview last week to assess the legislative session, Crist smiled, paused and said, "I think it took a hard right turn … at the end. That was disappointing. It wasn't necessary.''
Crist said lawmakers played for more politics than he.
"I feel sorry for them,'' Crist said. "I have a lot of other things to worry about (than) putting up an ultrasound bill the last week of session and doing the kinds of things that appeal to a certain segment of my former party.''
Crist acknowledged that his decision to call for a proposed constitutional amendment banning oil drilling in Florida waters wouldn't stop disasters like Deepwater Horizon, which occurred in waters past the reach of state regulation. Exactly 44 percent of voters said they would favor changing the constitution to preclude drilling, and 44 percent were opposed. It takes a 60 percent vote to approve a constitutional amendment.
Crist once favored oil drilling, as did Florida voters, according to a Mason-Dixon poll taken at the height of the fuel crisis in August 2008. About 61 percent favored drilling, with 32 percent opposed.
Crist's changes in position haven't gone unnoticed among voters, particularly Republicans like 33-year-old Adina Leon of Ocala.
"He's personally just political I think,'' Leon said. "He goes for whatever sounds good at the moment.''
Leon's comments echo those of her area's state representative, House Speaker Larry Cretul, who was enraged when Crist called the Legislature "the asylum.'' But Crist said he's ignoring it all to focus on the work of "the people.''
"It is very obvious to me when these unkind remarks are made. I mean, what do they care what I do?'' he said. "They shouldn't care whether I'm registered a Republican or a Democrat. … You're supposed to be able to do what you want and determine your own destiny.''
Times/Herald staff writers Lee Logan, John Frank and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at email@example.com.