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George LeMieux in awkward spot over Charlie Crist's Senate decision

George LeMieux, left, helped engineer Gov. Charlie Crist’s successful run for governor and served as his chief of staff.

Associated Press (2006)

George LeMieux, left, helped engineer Gov. Charlie Crist’s successful run for governor and served as his chief of staff.

WASHINGTON — For once, George LeMieux did not want to play the analyst. The subject was how Charlie Crist would do as an independent candidate in the U.S. Senate race.

"I used to do that," said LeMieux. "Now I'm focused on being the best United States senator I can be. That was a former life."

But the current life is entirely based on the former — as Crist's closest adviser, strategist, cheerleader and finally, his hand-picked placeholder in the Senate.

With Crist's Republican career at its nadir, the 40-year-old LeMieux could be seeing his own ambitions fade. Should Crist run as an independent, LeMieux will have to decide whether to back him or get behind Crist's nemesis, Marco Rubio.

If he sticks with Crist, LeMieux would be distanced from the Washington Republicans he has tried hard to fit in with, his eye on returning to the Senate full time. Snubbing Crist, who was supposed to cruise to victory and help LeMieux mount a challenge to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012, could be seen as traitorous.

"George has to stand by the governor, and if he fails to do so, he'll make Brutus look like a Boy Scout," said Florida Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich. "George is Charlie's Frankenstein. He needs to remember who made him."

LeMieux is dealing with the situation by not dealing with it. Entering a weekly Republican lunch Tuesday in the Capitol, he told reporters he would not discuss hypotheticals.

"He is a good Republican," LeMieux said of Crist, "and he should run to win the Republican primary."

Not even LeMieux sounds convincing that Crist can make the math work.

The GOP has turned inward since Barack Obama took the White House, squeezing moderates such as Crist and rewarding candidates like Rubio for rhetoric on outsized government spending, health care "takeovers" and demands for tougher border security.

Appointed in September, LeMieux seems acutely aware of the wave. One day he rails about the national debt, the next he condemns Obama for moving to put "enemy combatants" on trial outside military courts.

Indeed, LeMieux seems more like a Rubio guy than the "Charlie Crist Republican" that he once proudly declared himself.

LeMieux has said he would not have voted for the federal stimulus that Crist embraced as governor. Rubio has used Crist's position as a cleaver, running ads showing him hugging Obama during a February 2009 rally in Fort Myers.

Like Rubio, LeMieux supported a controversial teacher tenure bill that was passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature but vetoed by Crist last week. That decision has further hurt the governor with the party base but has made him a hero to many others — the sort of springboard a nascent independent campaign would die for.

"The Republican Party like the Democratic Party goes through phases where it reidentifies itself," LeMieux said. "Right now this party is very conservative and there's good reasons. I saw a bumper sticker over this weekend that said, 'If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.' "

LeMieux says he and Crist are both fiscal conservatives and he rejects the "moderate" label. But LeMieux had a role in shaping Crist in that way, as his campaign manager and chief of staff in the early phase of his governorship as Crist was calling for the restoration of felons' voting rights and emission controls, among other things, that began to antagonize the right.

Friends are quick to establish LeMieux's bona fides. He was a member of the Broward County Young Republicans, ran for the state House as a Republican and, in 2000 was elected chairman of the county Republican Party.

"George remains fully committed to the Republican Party and his history shows that," said Ed Pozzuoli, a lawyer who preceded LeMieux as head of the Broward GOP.

The Crist-LeMieux union began in full in 2003, when LeMieux became then-Attorney General Crist's deputy. LeMieux then ran the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, famously advising Crist not to appear with President George W. Bush.

So vital was LeMieux that he earned the nickname "the maestro."

Crist repaid that loyalty and counsel by appointing LeMieux as the interim senator to replace Mel Martinez, who quit 16 months before his term expired. Even that did not go easy.

By passing over a slate of distinguished candidates, including former and current members of congress, Crist invited charges of cronyism and it was one of the earliest cracks in his campaign.

LeMieux has doggedly tried to shed the seat-warmer image, engaging in debates, proposing legislation and, through it all, carrying the Republican banner.

Some think LeMieux would have been more useful playing an active role in Crist's now-struggling campaign. "There's a sense that there are very few people that feel comfortable giving advice that he doesn't want to hear," said Brian Ballard, a top Tallahassee lobbyist, whose father-in-law and lobbying partner, former Florida attorney general Jim Smith, was among those passed over by Crist.

Ballard said he will stick by Crist no matter what he decides and said LeMieux should, too. "There's one guy who can't walk away from him and that's George LeMieux. That would be a breach of political etiquette that to me is indescribable."

But people close to LeMieux say they think he will remain faithful to the thing that brought him and Crist together, and they insist he would be successful in his own right.

"While he's a loyal friend and it is tempting to work through that, I think George would want to make sure Republicans don't lose the seat," Pozzuoli said. "It's very awkward. It's tearing at him."

Cheney comes out for Rubio's bid

Former Vice President Dick Cheney announced he is supporting Marco Rubio in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate. "Charlie Crist has shown time and again that he cannot be trusted in Washington to take on the Obama agenda because on issue after issue he actually supports that agenda," Cheney said in a statement released by the Rubio camp.

George LeMieux in awkward spot over Charlie Crist's Senate decision 04/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 11:38am]
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