ST. PETERSBURG — "Man, it's been a rough patch,'' Gov. Charlie Crist said as he sat down with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Monday.
And for the next hour, the new national poster boy for endangered moderate Republicans talked about how rival Marco Rubio won't escape serious scrutiny much longer, the difference between governing and campaigning, how he understands the perception problems in spending so much time raising money out of state, and the confounding questions about his conservatism.
"It's hard to be more conservative than I am on issues — there's different ways stylistically to communicate that — I'm pro-life, I'm pro-gun, I'm pro-family, and I'm anti-tax. I don't know what else you're supposed to be, except maybe angry too,'' said Crist, who as a state legislator voted against abortion restrictions and more recently supported increasing cigarette taxes in Florida and the federal $787 billion stimulus package.
The governor, who used to act like the inevitable nominee for U.S. Senate, no longer sounds like someone taking anything for granted. He seemed instead like a candidate who, after months of steady criticism from conservative activists and from Rubio is eager to engage and peel away the veneer on the former state House speaker.
"Until somebody is clearly defined, if they say certain things on the stump then that individual can become what people want him to be, even if it isn't necessarily the case. I mean, he's voted for tax increases several times,'' Crist said of Rubio, who backed a plan to cut property taxes and raise sales taxes.
"Campaigns, thank God, are an educational opportunity," Crist said. "During the course of the next nine months or so we will strive to lay out a very good education. … I believe in Reagan's 11th Commandment — thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican — but I also think you need to be honest and truthful and make sure that before people go to the ballot box they have a good opportunity to be well-informed."
The Rubio campaign brushed off Crist's hints that he would paint Rubio as a phony.
"Among other issues, Charlie Crist hasn't been honest about his record of endorsing the stimulus, so we don't expect him to be honest about Marco Rubio's record,'' said Rubio campaign manager Alex Burgos. "Floridians deserve leaders we can trust to send to Washington to stand up to Barack Obama's agenda, and Charlie Crist has proven he'll stand with it then deny he ever did."
Crist has a dwindling, double digit lead over Rubio in polls and far more campaign money. But Rubio has been gaining glowing reviews among conservative media nationally and has been trouncing Crist in popularity votes in local Republican parties across Florida. In a low-turnout primary dominated by ardent conservatives, Rubio allies argue, Crist would be in serious trouble.
"There are a lot of Republicans that don't have the inclination to go to executive committee meetings,'' said Crist, noting that competitive Republican primaries for governor and attorney general could drive up turnout.
Crist cited a recent poll showing Rubio leading among Florida Republicans who doubt that President Obama was born in America and said the primary electorate is broader than some suggest.
Unsolicited, Crist also brought up criticism of him appointing to the Supreme Court a Democrat, James Perry, whom Jeb Bush had appointed as a circuit judge.
"There is criticism, I guess from the right, on my last Supreme Court appointment, Justice Perry, because he's liberal. Well I haven't seen one objective factor that says he is,'' the governor said. "And I'm criticized for being civil to the president. And I don't think that's a bad thing to be. I wonder sometimes what creates that sort of anger."
Crist has received a torrent of criticism for campaigning for the stimulus package. His response has been at times erratic, but lately he is standing fully behind the package and its help for Florida.
"People are hurting and they're suffering. I hear about it every day. That's frankly why I thought the stimulus was so important,'' Crist said. "I know there are some in my party that don't agree with that, but I don't have the luxury of putting politics over people."
Asked if there was any chance he would drop out of the Senate race and run for re-election as governor, Crist said, "Zero."
"There may be hope on the part of some that that would occur — opponents perhaps, or maybe people who do business in Tallahassee — but no, that's not going to happen."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.