TALLAHASSEE — His approval ratings may be sky high, but if Charlie Crist runs for the U.S. Senate, he still could face a serious primary challenge from former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.
In an about-face, the conservative Miami Republican said Tuesday that Crist's candidacy would not deter him from running if he decides to jump into the race. Rubio said that in 25 days he raised $250,000 for an exploratory campaign for the Senate and will make a decision within weeks.
"My decision, which I'll announce shortly, will not be predicated on what anybody else does," Rubio said in a phone interview from Washington, where he gave a speech and had meetings this week. He brushed off suggestions that he may run for attorney general, saying he's passionate about federal issues.
That's a sharp contrast to what Rubio told the St. Petersburg Times in January about a potential Crist Senate candidacy: "Everyone on the Republican side that's talking about running would step aside and acknowledge that Charlie Crist would be the best candidate," he said at the time.
Since then, however, Crist has infuriated many party activists by campaigning alongside President Barack Obama for the economic stimulus package, raising the prospect of a challenge from the right.
A Mason-Dixon poll released this month found only 23 percent of Republican voters in Florida would "definitely" vote for Crist for the Senate, and 18 percent would "definitely not." By comparison, 66 percent of Republicans said they definitely would vote for Attorney General Bill McCollum for governor.
Crist says he will make a decision about running for a second gubernatorial term or running for the Senate after the legislative session ends May 1, but much of Tallahassee is convinced that Crist will jump to the Senate. Helping feed that speculation, state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer said Tuesday that the party commissioned a poll last week looking at various potential gubernatorial matchups should Crist run for the Senate.
The poll by Public Opinion Strategies showed that 74 percent of likely voters approved of Crist's performance in office, including 80 percent of Republican voters. Among hypothetical primary and general election opponents that Greer would not reveal, Greer said Crist beat any primary challenger for governor or the Senate by 50 points and any general election challenger by at least 30 points.
"Clearly by these numbers, Charlie Crist is highly popular, and whatever seat he does decide to run for he wins hands down,'' Greer said.
A governor has vastly more name recognition than a former legislator in a state as large as Florida, and Rubio said such poll numbers should be expected.
"The governor's very well known and he's a very likable individual," Rubio said. "I have no doubt he does well in polling."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.