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Steve Bousquet: Mud-throwing Crist makes a tactical error

Former Gov. Charlie Crist likened Gov. Rick Scott to Al Capone during a fundraising event in St. Petersburg last week.

Associated Press

Former Gov. Charlie Crist likened Gov. Rick Scott to Al Capone during a fundraising event in St. Petersburg last week.

Gov. Rick Scott has heard some ugly nicknames before. When you have issues with popularity, it goes with the territory.

On national TV, they called him "Skeletor," after the scary cartoon character. They called him "Lord Voldemort," the bald, menacing-looking antagonist in the Harry Potter movies.

"Pink Slip Rick" sounds positively affectionate by comparison.

Then Charlie Crist came along and put them all to shame.

At a fundraising event in St. Petersburg last week, surrounded by Democrats eager to help him, Crist compared Scott to Al Capone.

Crist was referring to Scott having pleaded the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a sworn deposition in a 1995 antitrust case involving the hospital chain he headed.

"People like Al Capone do that," Crist said, "and they definitely don't get to be governor."

Scott's deposition was a big news story in his campaign in 2010, but it didn't stop him from winning. The fact is that Scott took the Fifth, and he definitely did get to be governor.

"Crist Goes Gangsta," the headlines said.

Okay, Crist likens the governor of Florida to one of the most notorious criminals in American history.

And people wonder if this race for governor might get just a bit rough?

It's easy to see what Crist was doing: He tossed some red meat at his fundraiser to motivate people to open their checkbooks a bit wider. And with a reporter present (the Times' Adam C. Smith, who was invited in after criticizing Crist for planning to keep the press out of the fundraiser), Crist also was telegraphing to the world that he's ready for a brawl with Scott and is willing to throw a punch.

The wisecrack ricocheted from the Times' Buzz blog to everywhere, from the Palm Beach Post to the Huffington Post.

Just what Crist intended, right? Well, while everyone is having fun at Scott's expense, consider this: Crist made a tactical error.

Don't laugh. While Scott's long-ago evasiveness in a legal proceeding is grist for the mill, Crist shouldn't be the guy pummeling him.

If Crist is going to have a serious shot at defeating Scott, he has to be the nice guy at all times and convince voters that Scott's the bad guy. You know, Lord Voldemort.

The narrative has to be Crist as the happy warrior and Scott as a sullen and standoffish CEO.

When Crist throws mud, he's out of character. It clashes with the nice-guy image he has spent decades cultivating. He's just another politician trashing his opponent.

In 2006, when then-Republican Crist took aim at Democratic rival Jim Davis for skipping votes in Congress, the ad cleverly showed an empty chair flying down the streets of D.C. It was effective because it didn't seem mean.

There's one other potential problem for Crist here.

Scott and Crist are at the start of a yearlong campaign that will be a brutal war of attrition, with the next governor the last man standing after being bludgeoned by every possible attack.

After you've called your opponent Al Capone, what do you do for an encore?

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Steve Bousquet: Mud-throwing Crist makes a tactical error 11/18/13 [Last modified: Monday, November 18, 2013 8:28pm]
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