If anyone wonders why Charlie Crist already is airing campaign ads on the radio, renewing a charm offensive with conservative activists and ramping up his U.S. Senate campaign team, a new Florida poll sheds some light.
The Oct. 12-18 Quinnipiac University poll finds the governor comfortably leading former House Speaker Marco Rubio for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, 50 percent to 35 percent among Republican voters. But Crist's lead has been cut in half since Quinnipiac last polled the race in August.
"His margin is still formidable," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But obviously Marco Rubio's focus on convincing Republican conservatives that he, not Crist, is their kind of guy is bearing fruit."
And getting Crist's attention.
The governor this week announced that his chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg, is stepping down to focus on the Senate race that only a few months ago seemed like a virtual sure thing for Crist. By comparison, it wasn't until January 2006 that then-Attorney General Crist dispatched his top aide, George LeMieux, to oversee a gubernatorial primary that looked far more competitive at the time.
On top of that, the Crist campaign recently started airing radio ads on conservative talk radio stations touting the governor's fiscal conservatism.
"Enough is enough. That's my message to President Obama. We can't spend our way into prosperity or tax our way into growth," Crist says in one of the ads.
In southwest Florida last week, the spot drew on-air sneers from a radio host who reminded listeners that Crist campaigned alongside Obama for the passage of the $787 billion stimulus package. Crist was one of the few Republican leaders nationally to endorse the package enthusiastically.
"I think he's nervous. The campaign and the governor's office institutionally looks a little panicked right now," said Republican consultant Brett Doster, who in 2006 ran the campaign of Crist's Republican gubernatorial rival, Tom Gallagher.
"I have never seen a guy who is so political and had so much going for him make so many mistakes in the past few months. The biggest thing is just not having a cohesive agenda for more than a day," said Doster, suggesting that Crist needs to show voters he is focused more on governing and policy than politics.
After a series of county Republican parties snubbed Crist by holding symbolic "straw votes" showing overwhelming preference for Rubio, the governor lately has begun showing up at county GOP meetings. Next month he is scheduled to headline the Christian Family Coalition's annual gala dinner in Miami.
Crist shrugged off the poll results while in South Florida on Wednesday.
"Over the course of time, these things are going to ebb and flow. It's a long way until we get to the election," he said, also dismissing questions about his early support for Obama's spending priorities.
"At the time, we felt as most Americans did that the economy was about to fall off the cliff. That investment started with the Bush administration after all, and I think now is the time to become very, very careful about how we spend the people's money," Crist said.
The Quinnipiac poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points for the GOP primary and 3 percentage points overall, showed a very healthy 59 percent of Floridians approve of the job Crist is doing — including 62 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of independents — and 31 percent disapprove. That's down slightly from August — and well below the kind of Republican approval ratings Jeb Bush consistently enjoyed as governor — and underscores a couple challenges facing Crist.
First, his poll numbers had been so high they were bound to drop and help fuel the sense of momentum for Rubio. Second, the more Crist tacks to the right to shore up the conservative base, the more he risks alienating independents.
Obama is expected back in Florida next week, including a stop in Tampa on Tuesday, but this time Crist has no plans to join the president.
"My advice to the governor would be to have a root canal scheduled when Obama's here. The initial endorsement of the stimulus package and the implicit endorsement of the president has not been helpful to him with conservatives in the party," said Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who said Crist should be only mildly worried about Rubio at this point.
The poll found 44 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Rubio, compared to only 3 percent who hold an unfavorable view of the former state House speaker. Brown said Rubio's numbers are phenomenal, considering only registered Republicans can vote in the primary.
Still, the poll showed him a considerably stronger general election candidate than Rubio. He was leading U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, the Democratic front-runner, 51 percent to 31 percent, while Meek edged Rubio 36 percent to 33 percent.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.