Charlie Crist supporters across Florida are in varying degrees of panic, and for good reason: Two polls released this week show the once inevitable Republican U.S. Senate nominee trailing Marco Rubio by 12 points and 14 points among Republican voters. A third poll released last week showed Rubio ahead by 3 points.
Inside the political echo chambers of Tallahassee and Washington, conventional wisdom is setting in that Crist is past the point of no return and doomed to experience one of the most stunning political downfalls Florida has ever seen. Meanwhile everyone — from his closest supporters to fiercest enemies — has an opinion on what the governor needs to do:
Start carpet bombing the TV airwaves with negative ads about Rubio. Give up and run for re-election as governor. Make a hard turn to the right and relentlessly flog everything Barack Obama does. Run as an independent. Run as a moderate. Apologize profusely for endorsing the stimulus package. And on and on.
Crist's plan? Play the leadership card.
Crist has long traded on his political instincts, but his public office could be his most valuable commodity. As governor of the fourth largest state, he has a ready platform for engaging in serious issues, drawing media attention — and making Rubio look small for taking political shots at the governor grappling with Florida's problems.
"I'm not really concerned about poll numbers. I'm concerned about the people,'' Crist said Monday in Miami, batting away questions about the former state House speaker's surging poll numbers at a news conference about bringing critically injured Haitians to Florida.
The governor's remarks in Miami echoed the swipe he took at Rubio last week in Tallahassee: "I don't have the luxury of going around the state and politicking all day,'' he said. "I'm going to do my job."
His official calendar lately tells the story. A governor who used to routinely list one or two events a day, on Monday had five scheduled events or meetings and on Tuesday, seven.
"It's a challenge for him to reinvent himself as an active, attentive governor when the truth is he spent the better part of last year focused on fundraising," scoffed Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos.
Crist's campaign is hardly on hold, this week firing off statements from Crist condemning Obama's proposed tax increases, NASA funding and trying terrorists in civilian court. The campaign also fired off a lengthy memo casting Rubio as a phony flip-flopper and pseudo-conservative.
But Crist is in no rush to spend the more than $7 million he has on hand to start aggressively attacking Rubio, who has about $2 million. A week of statewide TV commercials costs about $1.2 million, and Crist wants to marshal his resources until late in the campaign.
Will that be too late?
"How worried am I? On a scale of one to 10, I'm about seven,'' said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who wants the Crist campaign to more aggressively challenge Rubio's conservative credentials. "Rubio is a slick package from Miami, and people have not seen the other side of Marco Rubio and who he is, where he stands and his flip-flopping, whether it be taxes or cap-and-trade or high speed rail."
Eric Eikenberg, Crist's campaign manager, urged patience: "It's February, let's relax. There's 200 days left in this primary, and that is a long time."
Part of Crist's challenge is that so much remains outside his control. Will the economy improve by August? Will anger over Obama's agenda ebb, and with it the energy and motivation of antiestablishment voters fueling Rubio's campaign?
Particularly ominous for the governor is that the primary so far appears to be all about Charlie Crist, rather than a choice between Rubio and Crist.
A Jan. 20-24 Quinnipiac poll, for instance, found that more than four in 10 Republican voters did not know enough about Rubio to have an opinion of him. And yet the poll (with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent) found 47 percent of Republicans backed Rubio, and 44 percent Crist.
Another Jan. 27-28 survey by Republican pollsters Tony Fabrizio and David Lee (margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percent) found Rubio leading Crist among likely Republican voters by 14 percentage points.
"Based on his current standing in the GOP Senate primary, Crist's most viable path to the Senate appears to be running as an independent. … The only GOP primary Crist appears to be able to win this year is the gubernatorial primary where he leads Bill McCollum by several points and performs far better across the board,'' the pollsters wrote in a memo.
Speculation that Crist will switch parties to save his political career is being fueled by Rubio allies. The period to qualify as a candidate for public office is April 26 to April 30, and Florida law bars candidates from switching party registration within six months of the general election.
That means Crist could not switch parties if he lost the Republican nomination, as Joe Lieberman did in Connecticut.
Asked at a news conference Tuesday at North Miami Senior High School if he would run as a Democrat or independent, he said, "Not a thought in my mind.''
What about running for re-election as governor? "Not a thought in my mind,'' he repeated. "I'm running for the United States Senate for the people.''
Crist has solicited advice from everyone from longtime political strategists to Democrat Bob Graham, the last governor to make the leap to U.S. Senate. Stay focused on governing was a common refrain, just as it was with more than a dozen Republican strategists the Times/Herald interviewed about how they would advise Crist.
Strikingly, most of those strategists interviewed confessed they had few good ideas to change the trajectory of the race in Crist's favor.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.