A mellow Crist gets GOP's blessing for Senate bid

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist whispered his way into the race for U.S. Senate on Tuesday with an unadorned announcement, revealing the delicacy of carrying out his current job in Florida while chasing a new one in Washington.

Crist issued no lofty pronouncement and offered no platform. Two young aides quit their jobs in the governor's office to join his campaign, and the statement of candidacy was issued through the Republican Party.

"For me, it's always been about service," Crist said. "The challenges that Florida faces are not just Florida challenges. They are national issues."

Crist held three events that generated little news but were platforms for him to talk about why he wants to be a senator. Reporters raised the subject, which allowed Crist to avoid being accused of campaigning on state time.

"We're a long way from Election Day," Crist said of his low-key declaration. "I think the low-key-ness of it is a reflection of being focused on the job that I have."

Crist's soaring job approval rating as governor makes him the instant, and some might argue prohibitive, favorite to win the seat being vacated by the retirement of Sen. Mel Martinez. Crist's quiet announcement was followed moments later by endorsements from the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as well as from Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee that helps get Republicans elected.

The senatorial committee, eager to ensure that the party holds the seat in the 2010 election, threw its support to Crist even though former state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami is running, too. The prompt national endorsement rankled some conservatives who admire Rubio and consider Crist too moderate.

For Crist, the role as frontrunner will only amplify questions about his brief record as governor. It's hard to tell whether his popularity is a reflection of his well-liked personal traits or his policies, and much of what he has begun can be labeled unfinished business.

• On taxes, Crist carried the torch for the Amendment 1 property tax-cut referendum last year, which he calls "the largest tax cut in Florida history," though it has been criticized as having a negligible impact on a typical home­owner. He persuaded legislators to put new tax breaks on the 2010 ballot, one aimed at helping first-time home buyers and another for commercial property owners.

• On education, Crist needed to rely on nearly $900 million in federal stimulus money to maintain public school funding and championed a 15 percent tuition hike sought by university leaders.

• On insurance, Crist promoted a rate freeze on the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and opposed higher rates for private insurers, which backfired when the state's largest private insurer, State Farm, announced that it will pull out of Florida. Crist declared "good riddance," but it remains to be seen how Florida's insurance market will stabilize in the absence of such a large player. In the just-ended session, lawmakers passed steps to make the insurance industry more market-based.

Leslie Spencer of AARP joined dozens of advocacy groups, some with ties to the Democratic Party, in criticizing a lack of leadership and shortsighted fiscal policy that relies on federal stimulus money without a thorough review of tax loopholes.

"We can't just give it lip service and say things will get better down the road and just hope that will happen," Spencer said.

Other actions by Crist could cause trouble with segments of the Republican base, particularly in a primary. He was an enthusiastic supporter of President Barack Obama's stimulus package, is an advocate of expanded gambling that he opposed in 2006 and has ducked questions about whether he will sign a state budget with large increases in cigarette taxes and motor vehicle fees.

"I want to review all those things, and it's nice that we have the line item (veto) in Florida," he said.

But it isn't all bad news.

Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation said Crist can run for the Senate as an environmentalist, and noted that today the South Florida Water Management District could approve a scaled-down purchase of U.S. Sugar land, the major environmental initiative of Crist's term.

"We have had a very good working relationship on a number of environmental issues," Fuller said.

Indeed, beyond any policy initiative, Crist's story is a triumph of imagery and perception. He has polished an image as an earnest and caring leader who rejects the rank partisanship that seems never to be out of fashion in Washington.

Asked why he wants to swap the governorship of one of America's largest states to take a junior seat for the minority party in the U.S. Senate, Crist said he wants to ensure that "there's an attitude of working together to get things done for Florida and for America. I know that's what people of this state want, and the people of this country."

To keep his Senate candidacy on track, Crist needs to be a very dutiful governor.

He already has been the subject of partisan attacks as "Empty Chair Charlie." His frequent days off have been the subject of unflattering news stories, and his lack of hands-on engagement for much of the 2009 legislative session angered some fellow Republicans.

Crist loyalists say privately that his poll ratings and proven fund-raising ability will eventually clear the GOP field. But Rubio, his current Republican rival, told Fox News that their primary will be about two contrasting visions, with Rubio casting himself as the only true conservative.

"There is one wing of the party, I don't believe it is the majority wing of the party, that believes that if you can't beat them, join them," Rubio said.

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

FAST FACTS

On the move

• Crist is the first Florida governor since 1968, when the two-term limit was created, to choose not to run for a second term.

• It's the fifth time in just over a decade that Crist is running for a different statewide office. Before being governor, he ran for attorney general, education commissioner and the U.S. Senate.

A mellow Crist gets GOP's blessing for Senate bid 05/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 11:12am]

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