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Nice guy Charlie Crist playing rough trying to get to Washington

People "are tired of the games and the name-calling and the politics of personal destruction," Gov. Charlie Crist declared in April while announcing he would run as a nonpartisan candidate for U.S. Senate.

It fit perfectly with Crist's image — the happy warrior, the painstakingly polite everyman, the fellow that Jeb Bush once described as "about the nicest guy I've ever met in politics."

Except Crist's speech on St. Petersburg's waterfront came just after he spent more than $1 million in TV ads casting Republican rival Marco Rubio as a phony, big-spender who shouldn't be trusted. And it preceded millions more in TV spending trashing Rubio as a right-wing extremist who wants to "balance the budget on the backs of seniors." Not to mention the ads calling out Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek for scandal and corruption.

For such a nice guy promising to restore civility in Washington, Crist is playing mighty rough trying to get there.

"Why won't you release your RPOF credit card and clear this up? … And why is there a federal investigation into your reporting income?'' he challenged Rubio in Sunday's CNN/St. Petersburg Times debate at the University of South Florida.

On Wednesday the underdog Senate candidate visited a nursing home in Dunnellon to warn seniors about Rubio's plans for Social Security. The Miami Republican wants to privatize the program, Crist declared, according to the Ocala Star-Banner.

Rubio will turn it over to "the Wall Street boys to gamble with," said Crist, although he has heard Rubio insist repeatedly that he has backed off his early support for private savings accounts.

Crist makes no apologies for raising tough questions — "Welcome to the NFL," he repeated Sunday — saying voters deserve all the facts.

"Because of my love of the people of Florida I can't let somebody pull the wool over their eyes,'' Crist said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday. "Shame on me as a candidate if I don't attempt to accurately inform the electorate about where opponents stand before election day. If I didn't do it, I would be performing political malpractice."

Nor did he make apologies for suggesting Rubio still wants to privatize Social Security, despite Rubio's categorical denials.

"He's raised a ton of dough from Wall Street and I think there's got to be a reason. The privatization issue may be part of that," said Crist, noting that Rubio has also said everything should be on the table for Social Security.

"It's just another, almost comical example of Charlie Crist's say-or-do-anything mentality when it comes to politics,'' said Alberto Martinez, a Rubio campaign adviser. "He's spent millions and millions of dollars launching false and negative attacks, while at the same time talking about how he wants to 'change the tone' in Washington and how 'the people' are sick of bickering. There are Academy Award-winning actors who couldn't pull that off with a straight face."

Throughout his political career, one of Crist's strongest traits has been his sheer likability and nice-guy persona. In this campaign, though, the vast majority of Crist's money has been spent on ads attacking his opponents, says the Rubio campaign.

"This certainly runs counter to what essentially has been Crist's greatest political strength — Crist's civility and gentlemanliness. He treats everybody with respect,'' said retired University of South Florida St. Petersburg political scientist Darryl Paulson.

Crist's kind persona actually belies his long record of hardball politics. He rarely comes off as angry, but he also rarely hesitates to hit hard.

When Crist ran against U.S. Sen. Bob Graham in 1998 he "won" a "Dirty Dozen" award from National Journal for airing some of the "finest bottom-feeding, sludge-slinging campaign ads." Crist hit Graham for his relationship to Bill Clinton and for Medicare and Social Security positions that could hurt seniors and for supporting tax increases.

In 2000, education commissioner candidate Crist ran ads attacking Democrat George Sheldon for a 16-year-old drunk-driving arrest. (Eight years later, Crist picked Sheldon to be his secretary of the Department of Children and Families.) In 2006, he won the governor's mansion after blasting Democrat Jim Davis for being a chronic no-show in Congress — an accusation later leveled at Crist as governor.

"I'll quote Ronald Reagan: Never confuse kindness with weakness,'' Crist said of his campaign style. "I just believe the voters deserve to know the truth before they cast their ballot."

The irony is that many of Crist's allies believe Crist could have dispatched Rubio as a Republican Senate rival in 2009 had he not underestimated the threat and waited so long to start aggressively attacking.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Nice guy Charlie Crist playing rough trying to get to Washington 10/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 11:09am]

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