CLEARWATER — Among the many indignities Gov. Charlie Crist has faced over the last several rocky months, this one hit home.
Republican Party activists in his own county of Pinellas, many of whom have been campaigning alongside Crist for years, on Monday overwhelmingly declared that they prefer Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate. The 106-54 "straw poll" vote is officially meaningless, but it's a symbolic blow for Crist.
After all, many of the people lining up to cast secret ballots against Crist on Monday night at Tucson's restaurant were the party activists who know him best.
"I volunteered for Charlie for nine years. I love Charlie as a person. If he was here, I would give him a big hug. He actually called me about this (straw poll) yesterday," said Wilna Varney of Largo, who voted for Rubio. "But I'm a more conservative person, and I'm going to support the more conservative candidate."
The Crist campaign downplayed the significance of Monday night's vote, just as it has with the more than a dozen similarly lopsided straw polls taken in recent months by other county GOP organizations and clubs across the state.
"Over the next eight months, we look forward to continuing to spread our message to all Republican primary voters in Pinellas County and are confident that on the poll that counts — Election Day — Charlie Crist will be the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate," said Crist campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "Gov. Crist's record of support in Pinellas County, which included 77 percent of the primary vote for governor, continues to strengthen as this campaign moves forward and we reach out to the remaining 219,000 registered GOP voters in the county."
Still, before Monday night's nonbinding vote, Crist supporters worked phones to line up support and sent mailers to executive committee members touting Crist's conservative principles.
"It's dangerous to overemphasize an executive committee of a political party. It's a couple hundred people not necessarily representative of the 219,000 other people (in the county)," said former Pinellas party chairman Paul Bedinghaus.
Only a year ago it would have been unthinkable that Crist could be snubbed by his home county, and Monday night's result underscored how vastly the political terrain has changed not only for Crist but Republicans everywhere as conservative activists have become increasingly vocal.
"It's just a perfect storm in some ways, and certain people want to take advantage of the situation," said Erwin Beck of Clearwater, a Crist supporter. "These tea party people don't really grasp consensus politics."
Longtime Crist supporter Margie Milford, recalling how Crist keeps phoning her lately to check on the health of her ailing husband, lamented that the governor is being buffeted by angry forces in the GOP.
"It's a group of people, they're dissatisfied, they're angry. They don't know who to take it out on, so they're taking it out on Charlie Crist," she said. "When all is said and done, I think they'll realize he has them in his heart."
Monday night's meeting of the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee drew 177 members eligible to vote and at least as many others.
In other straw poll results:
• Gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum received 137 votes and Paula Dockery 28.
• Attorney general candidate Pam Bondi of Tampa received 123 votes, compared with 28 for Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and 15 for former Florida health care administrator Holly Benson.
• Agriculture commissioner candidate Adam Putnam received 135 votes and rival Carey Baker 34.
The Crist-Rubio primary has turned into one of the most-watched races in the country. Neither candidate attended Monday night's meeting in Pinellas, but even in their absence they still overshadowed Republican Senate candidate Bob Smith of Sarasota, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire who addressed the crowd.
Smith received seven votes in the straw poll while long shot candidates Belinda Noah and Marion Thorpe each received one.
Party activists in both camps offered various explanations for Crist's political slide in recent months
"The nail in the coffin was when he was so kind to Mr. Obama," said Fernando Gutierez of Clearwater, referring to Crist's endorsement of the $789 billion stimulus package and who said the Rubio campaign called him to make sure he planned to vote. "A true Republican wouldn't have been so cozy with Obama."
County Commissioner Neil Brickfield cited the economy:
"We have 11 ½ percent unemployment in the Tampa Bay area. We've got the second-highest foreclosure rate in the nation," said Brickfield. "You can't say it's going well."
Pinellas GOP treasurer Chet Renfro said Crist lost him and many others when he decided to run for U.S. Senate rather than a second term as governor. The move was selfish, he said, and put virtually every statewide seat held by Republicans at risk.
"He threw us under the bus and could turn the whole state over to the Democrats," said Renfro, a leader in Crist's 2006 Pinellas campaign.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]