ST. PETERSBURG — He has been off the public stage for nearly seven months and yet Charlie Crist's shadow still looms over the Florida GOP.
The main Republican candidates for U.S. Senate held their first debate Thursday, and it sometimes felt like a game of who could sound most disdainful of the ex-governor.
"I never supported Charlie Crist in his U.S. Senate race despite a lot of pressure to do that,'' stressed state Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
Former state Rep. Adam Hasner boasted that his antagonism to Crist was well known in Tallahassee.
Crist, who dropped out of the Republican Party while running for U.S. Senate, is never a great topic for former Sen. George LeMieux — he being Crist's former chief of staff, campaign manager and longtime friend. Running in a GOP primary where many staunch conservatives see Crist as a moderate traitor, LeMieux has to keep his distance from the man who appointed him to fill Mel Martinez's unexpired term in the Senate.
"During the time I was the governor's chief of staff he did a lot of good things, and the governor was widely and wildly successful during that first year,'' LeMieux said at the debate sponsored by the Florida Society of News Editors and Florida Press Association held at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, a few blocks from Crist's home.
"I went back into private life, and after I went back to private life, he made some decisions to run more to the left. Those were not decisions I agreed with,'' said LeMieux, glossing over Crist's early move to enact cap and trade policies and make it easier for felons to regain their civil rights.
"From day one he began to move his party and the state certainly to the left," responded Hasner.
"I was the one after the 2008 election saying Republicans don't need to be less partisan, Republicans need to be more principled."
The debate between the Republicans vying to take on Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson marked the first high-profile appearance of retired Col. Mike McCalister, a Plant City resident and long shot candidate who ran for governor in 2010 and received 10 percent of the vote.
"I want to give the voters of Florida a true political outsider," declared McCalister, 59, who looked as comfortable debating as any of the seasoned politicians.
The debate produced few sharp exchanges, and only one area of disagreement stood out: Haridopolos was the only candidate who supports drawing down troops in Afghanistan.
"That has to be done because we are stretched thin at home,'' said the Merritt Island Republican, who later backpedaled and added that he did not support any timeline for withdrawing.
Another area of difference? Only LeMieux said he disagreed with Gov. Rick Scott's decision to turn away $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail. Better Florida receive the money than California and other states, he said.
The consistent message for all the candidates is that America stands on a precipice.
"I am truly concerned that America's future is in jeopardy," Hasner said. "The reality is America is not too big to fail."
LeMieux stressed his experience serving in the U.S. Senate and his commitment to reigning in spending.
"Congress is the most bizarre broken and dysfunctional institution," he said.
Haridopolos repeatedly noted that he has delivered — cut billions from the state budget, moved the Florida Senate to the right, revamped Medicaid — while others have just talked.
"A lot of people talk about what they'd like to do,'' he said. "I've done it."
Adam C. Smith can be reached [email protected]