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Crist could have his alter ego keep Senate seat warm

Is Florida ready for not one, but two Charlie Crists?

The governor says he would never appoint himself to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez. That would be an outrageous power grab, which the appearance-conscious Crist knows all too well.

But the next best thing would be for Crist to pick George LeMieux to keep the seat warm until January 2011, when Crist himself hopes to take over.

LeMieux now finds himself at the ultimate fantasy camp for politicians in Florida. Seven people comprise the field of dreamers for a once-in-a-lifetime appointment to the world's most exclusive club.

The others are U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young; former state Attorney General Jim Smith; University of North Florida president John Delaney; state Rep. Jennifer Carroll; Coral Gables lawyer Roberto Martinez; and former state Sen. Dan Webster.

Each represents a key Republican constituency whose support Crist covets as a Senate candidate: Smith is a party elder statesman; Carroll is an African-American with a solid military pedigree; Webster is a hero to evangelical Christians.

Each has vulnerabilities, too, and Crist's choice must be acceptable to the Republican base, which is highly skeptical of his commitment to conservatism at a time when Crist faces a challenge on the right from GOP rival Marco Rubio.

LeMieux is a wild card because of his unparalleled closeness to Crist, which in this case cuts both ways. Crist can pick LeMieux and be secure in the knowledge that Sen. LeMieux would never embarrass his patron. But the choice would also invite cries of cronyism.

The 40-year-old LeMieux is much more than "the maestro" who masterminded Crist's campaign for governor. He's a confidante, sounding board and alter ego.

LeMieux led talks on the controversial gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. He played a key role in Crist's much-publicized snub of President George W. Bush and Karl Rove in Pensacola on election eve 2006. He has been a paid consultant to state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer.

The men talk several times a day, even though LeMieux left his job as Crist's chief of staff 20 months ago to become chairman of his law firm, Gunster Yoakley & Stewart.

Perhaps most important, LeMieux, like Crist, is a populist at heart, a self-described "Charlie Crist Republican" who says he would pursue "Charlie Crist-type solutions" in Washington, and who shares Crist's dislike for hard-edged partisanship and corporate power. LeMieux, like Crist, would make conservatives nervous.

Because Mel Martinez is a Cuban-American, as is Rubio, the choice of Roberto Martinez makes practical political sense. Hispanics are a key Republican constituency, and Crist often preaches the virtues of diversity.

But despite his impressive resume — federal prosecutor, adviser to Jeb Bush and Crist, member of the state Board of Education — Martinez also carries the trial lawyer tag, and that's trouble in the GOP.

True to form, Crist is keeping 'em guessing. He's known for acting on intuition as he did when he expanded early voting in 2008. In this case, my guess is that Crist's heart says LeMieux, but his head says someone else.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crist could have his alter ego keep Senate seat warm 08/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 10:47pm]
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