The single biggest threat to Charlie Crist's political future probably isn't his U.S. Senate primary rival, Marco Rubio.
It's former Gov. Jeb Bush, who could give Rubio an enormous boost if he chose to.
A new St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll underscores how much Bush's shadow still looms over Florida almost three years after he left office: Forty-six percent said they would rather have Bush leading Florida today, while 41 percent said Crist.
More striking, 71 percent of Republicans would pick Bush as governor today, while only 22 percent of Republicans said they would pick Crist over Bush.
"Is there a path to victory for Marco Rubio? Yes, but it involves the support of Jeb Bush," said pollster Tom Eldon. "Crist may have appointed the last senator, but Bush has it in his hands to appoint the next one."
Despite their occasional public professions of mutual respect, the Crist-Bush rivalry is among the worst-kept secrets in Florida. It has served as an undercurrent in everything from Florida's presidential primary contest between Mitt Romney and John McCain to the current debate about the future of the GOP.
The former governor is officially neutral but often praises Rubio and recently chastised national Republican leaders for trying to discourage a Republican Senate primary. The ex-governor once grandly anointed Rubio a protegee on the floor of the state House by presenting him with a "sword of a great conservative warrior."
Some of Bush's closest allies are backing Rubio, including his son, George P. Bush. The ex-governor's top fundraiser, Ann Herberger, was working on the Rubio campaign, while the governor's former campaign consultant, Mike Murphy, has donated money to Rubio, as has Karl Rove. Jeb Bush's former campaign communications director, Todd Harris, has been quietly helping Rubio as well.
Some Republicans, in fact, see Rubio's insurgent campaign as a proxy battle between Florida's two most powerful Republicans, Bush and Crist, each of whom might one day wind up in the White House.
"This is absolutely a proxy war between two Republican clans," MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman from Pensacola, told the St. Petersburg Times. "And it's not just about Florida, but about what Florida politician gets to the front of the line to run for president. It's a zero sum game. Any advantage Charlie Crist gets hurts Jeb Bush, and any advantage Jeb Bush gets hurts Charlie Crist."
Republican consultant Adam Goodman of Tampa said the divide between Bush and Crist factions is more about the state of the GOP.
"It has less to do with Jeb and Charlie and their personalities than about the national fight to discover or rediscover the soul of the Republican party," Goodman said.
The telephone survey of 600 registered voters was conducted Oct. 25-28, for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald and Bay News 9. The poll was done by Schroth, Eldon and Associates, whose clients primarily are Democrats, and the Polling Co., which mainly works with Republicans. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points overall, and slightly more than 6 percentage points for questions asked solely to Democrats or Republicans.
Bush, 55, now runs a Miami-based private consulting business and spends a lot of time promoting education reform. He has always been more ideologically conservative and passionate about the details of policy. The 53-year-old Crist, until recently, had devoted much more energy trying to appeal to moderate voters and crossover Democrats with his sunny brand of populism.
Crist's emphasis on bipartisanship appears to be paying off only with Democrats, who said they would pick Crist over Bush as governor, 58 percent to 24 percent. The poll found that 44 percent of independents said they would pick Bush as governor today and 38 percent said Crist.
Hispanic voters picked Bush over Crist, 63 percent to 24 percent, while African-Americans picked Crist over Bush, 70 percent to 16 percent. Even in Crist's home base of Tampa Bay, 47 percent said they would prefer Bush as governor today, compared with 37 percent for Crist, who beat Bush by 10 percentage points in South Florida.
Part of the reason for Bush's strong poll numbers today is pure nostalgia, the pollsters said.
"The grass is always greener," said Kellyanne Conway. "And let's face it, when Bush was governor, whether it was through causation or coincidence, the economic prosperity and promise for most Floridians was better."
Indeed, Bush governed during mostly flush times economically, while Crist inherited a deeply troubled economy. The new poll found only 42 percent of Floridians rate Crist's job performance as good or excellent but until lately Crist has enjoyed sky-high approval ratings, often approaching 70 percent, despite the terrible economy.
Bush generally enjoyed approval ratings in the mid to high 50s, but his support tended to be deeper, while Crist's was broader. At least 80 percent of Republicans consistently gave Bush high marks, while Crist allies have boasted lately when polls showed 66 percent of Republicans approving of his performance.
"Jeb Bush seemed to be a fair person," 49-year-old Lisa Grable, a homemaker in Altamonte Springs, said when asked about the Bush-Crist comparison. "He wasn't out there to build himself up. He wasn't always looking for bigger and better opportunities."
Times/Herald writer Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.