Charlie Crist leaves no doubt he intends to spend a lot of money telling Florida Republicans that Marco Rubio is not all he says he is. Trailing in the polls by double digits, Crist had better do something.
"I know what the numbers are and all of the projections and all of that stuff. And that's all fine and well and good," Crist said Wednesday. "But we've got six months to go. And the reality is this: The people really don't know the opponent. … I am confident that by the time Aug. 24 comes, they'll be well informed."
Certainly the fundraising numbers released by the Republican campaigns — $7.5 million in the bank for Crist at the start of the year, compared with $2 million for Rubio — look pretty daunting for former House Speaker Rubio. But a closer look at their finance reports shows that Rubio is not so outgunned in financial resources.
Crist actually has about $5 million available for the primary, compared with roughly $1.9 million for Rubio, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis.
That's because donors can give only $2,400 per election, and Crist has relied heavily on big check writers who gave money both for the primary and the general election. If Crist loses the primary, he will have to refund at least $2.5 million in general election contributions.
As of Jan. 31, Crist had 21/2 times as much money on hand as Rubio. That's a big money lead, but not nearly as huge as the 5-to-1 advantage Crist had over Rubio three months earlier.
Given Rubio's momentum — consistently leading in the polls, loads of national media attention, more than $800,000 raised in recent online "money bomb" solicitations — Rubio is likely to have closed the gap still further by the end of this fundraising quarter. He also has national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth ready to spend money on his behalf.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, officially neutral but widely expected eventually to endorse Rubio, took his hardest shot at Crist to date in an interview with NewsMax magazine this week. "Unforgivable," Bush called Crist's endorsement of the $787 billion stimulus package a year ago.
"He is the only (Republican) statewide political leader that embraced the stimulus package when Republicans were fighting to suggest an alternative," Bush said.
Without the stimulus money, Crist responded Wednesday, Florida would have lost another 87,000 jobs, including 20,000 in the teaching profession.
"Everybody has a right to their opinion," Crist said. "I understand that different people view it in a different way. In the shoes that I stand in right now, I've got to look out for the people, and that's what I'm doing."
It costs roughly $1.2 million for a solid week of statewide TV ads, and Crist's fundraising prowess is sure to dim considerably after the legislative session.
It makes the calculus tricky for Crist six months before primary day. Should he spend money now to define Rubio and halt his momentum before it's too late? Or marshal every penny until the final five weeks of the campaign?
Clearly, Crist is no longer shy about directly and aggressively criticizing an opponent he ignored for months.
"What did he do when he got power? Well, he comes here to Tallahassee … he hires 20 people at $100,000 apiece," Crist said Wednesday about Rubio's tenure as House speaker. "He spends, what, half a million dollars to make the place where the House members eat nicer? Are you kidding me? This is a fiscal conservative? Not by any definition that I've ever seen."
Actually, Rubio spent $400,000 on renovations, which included the members' dining room as well as other expenses. Not all 22 staffers earned more than $100,000.
"These desperate attacks aren't the work of a 'happy warrior' being civil, but they are clear signs Charlie Crist is giving up on a real debate on the issues in favor of bitter character attacks," said Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos, saying the staffers hired by Rubio were mostly former Bush staffers brought in to help Rubio push a "bold conservative agenda."
"Charlie Crist's support for the stimulus was unforgivable and reckless," Burgos said, "but that doesn't give him license to go around reinventing his record and Marco Rubio's."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.