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Handicapping Gov. Charlie Crist's list to replace Sen. Mel Martinez

It's the oddest reality show to come along in ages: Survivor: Charlie Crist's Senator Selection Saga. Eight men and one woman scattered across a peninsula and competing for the affections of a white-haired leader. The prize? A 16-month job as seat-warmer in the U.S. Senate.

One by one, Gov. Crist has summoned the contestants on his not-so-short list of finalists to replace Mel Martinez. After private interviews, he's trotted them out to stand before the cameras and publicly declare their admiration for Crist and to tout their political assets.

Why, you may wonder, would so many respected public servants subject themselves to this? Because it is a dream job, and potentially very lucrative.

Especially for some of the lobbyists and power-broker lawyers on the list, the lifetime title of "former senator" is probably worth millions. And the person, who could be chosen any day now, won't even have to keep the job long or campaign for it — except for courting Crist.

The list of nine candidates really says more about Crist than anything else. He's a man who wants to please everybody, so he checks off all the boxes. North Florida, South Florida and Central Florida are represented. So are conservatives and moderates. And Hispanics, women and African-Americans.

The governor seems to be enjoying himself, although Martinez's abrupt resignation has put Crist in a no-win situation.

He will inevitably disappoint people no matter the pick. Because the selection will be so closely associated with Crist, who is running for that Senate seat, Crist will be tagged with any mistake, gaffe or controversial vote his appointee makes.

The factors the governor is calculating include A) Who can do the job. B) Whom can he trust not to embarrass him. C) Who might help him politically. D) Who can help the Florida GOP.

Every one of his finalists has a downside, so the question may be who offers the least risk.

Let's review the field, in alphabetical order.

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs. Tampa Bay Republican activists had lobbied hard for Crist to look at Bilirakis. But based on the questionnaire he submitted, Bilirakis doesn't look like a serious candidate.

Bilirakis' hand-scribbled document looks like he whipped it off while driving on U.S. 19. He didn't even bother answering a bunch of basic questions, including whether he has ever been sued or what business interests he has.

State Rep. Jennifer Carroll of the Jacksonville area. A conservative African-American Navy veteran, Carroll would surely earn Crist a huge burst of glowing national attention for looking like a new breed of Republican. But Carroll is no stand-out in the Legislature (and she once claimed an MBA from a diploma mill called Kensington University that was later ordered closed). She could be a risky, unpredictable choice.

University of North Florida president John Delaney. The former Jacksonville mayor has gravitas and political savvy, and a temporary stint in Washington could help boost him in any future statewide campaign. The main knock is that as mayor he campaigned for a county sales tax increase that voters passed to fund a host of infrastructure improvements. Still he did lower property taxes consistently and shrink his city hall payroll, and Jeb Bush considered him conservative enough to lead his think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future.

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey of Orlando. He has Washington experience, but it's hard to see how someone who ran his last campaign nearly three decades ago makes the cut.

Former Crist chief of staff George LeMieux. The governor's former campaign manager is the safest pick if Crist wants to ensure loyalty and no embarrassments. But some party activists see him as too moderate. While he is not a registered lobbyist, there are likely to be conflict-of-interest questions as LeMieux's law firm earns millions of dollars from the state Department of Transportation.

Former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez. Another savvy politico who has the considerable added bonus of being Hispanic. Though tight with Jeb Bush, some conservatives would be horrified to see Crist appoint a trial lawyer who has given campaign donations to Democratic Sens. John Edwards, Chuck Robb and Robert Menendez.

Former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. The well-regarded congressman defeated by Ron Klein in 2006 would hit the ground running in Washington. But he did lose his last election, and critics are making a big stink about him having supported a ban on assault weapons. Crist has tended to be an absolutist on gun control.

Former Attorney General and Secretary of State Jim Smith. He's an elder statesman, but picking him also would mean "the people's governor" chose an uber-lobbyist with a vast array of clients that include health care, finance, sugar, tobacco and plenty of other interests. Even if Smith severs ties from those clients, his son-in-law, Brian Ballard, remains one of Tallahassee's top lobbyists.

Former state Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden. He's universally respected and the only impeccably conservative candidate in the bunch. If Crist picks him, it's a sign he's worried about Marco Rubio's Senate challenge.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at

Handicapping Gov. Charlie Crist's list to replace Sen. Mel Martinez 08/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 12:51pm]
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