CLEARWATER — Charlie Crist calls himself a "happier warrior" on the campaign trail. But he made clear Monday that when it comes to U.S. Senate rival Marco Rubio, he will also be one tough warrior.
Addressing a hometown crowd at a Pinellas Republican Party meeting Monday night, the governor, facing a tougher-than-expected U.S. Senate primary, cast former House Speaker Rubio as someone whose conservative boasts should not be trusted.
"When you hear people out there on the campaign trail talking about what they're going to do, look at what they've already done,'' said Crist, going on to cast Rubio as a big-spending, tax-raiser. "Let's make sure the words meet the facts. I don't believe in raising taxes. I'm running against someone who wanted to,'' said Crist, apparently referring to Rubio's support of a plan to raise sales taxes while cutting property taxes.
But Crist never mentioned that he signed a budget this year that includes more than $2-billion in new taxes and fees. In fact, several times Crist made claims about his record that have been widely debunked or undercut by reality:
• He boasted of cutting $6-billion from the state budget, though he had no choice given revenue shortfalls. State lawmakers actually consistently proposed more spending cuts than Crist.
• He boasted of Florida's education ranking in Education Week magazine rising from 31st to the top 10 under his tenure. But the authors of that study told the Orlando Sentinel that they don't know anything about a 31st ranking, and Jeb Bush was responsible for most of the measures examined in that analysis.
"I cannot afford to try to make political points. I've got to lead,'' Crist said. "And sometimes I may make decisions that may seem unpopular even in our party. But I've got a duty to do what I think is right for you every day."
The governor cited his support for Barack Obama's $787-billion stimulus package, saying he was only out to ensure Florida received "our fair share." In fact, no prominent Republican campaigned harder for its passage than Crist, who called legislators urging their support and touted it on nationally televised interviews.
"I make no apology for it. We would have lost 20,000 teachers if we hadn't gotten our fair share,'' Crist told the enthusiastic crowd of roughly 300 at Tucson's restaurant.
In a new line of attack, Crist also made an only slightly veiled reference to Rubio's personal finances. The last time the Miami Republican filed a campaign disclosure form, it showed the father of four had more than $900,000 in debt from mortgages and student loans and had a net worth of under $10,000.
At this point in the 2006 election cycle when Crist faced a tough GOP primary against Tom Gallagher, the Pinellas Republican executive committee had endorsed Crist for governor. But next month, his home county's party will hold an unofficial "straw poll" between Crist and Rubio, and by many accounts Rubio could be the favorite.
"Pinellas County Republicans shouldn't be fooled by Charlie Crist's latest conservative reinvention effort," Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said Monday night. "When he ran for governor, Charlie Crist campaigned as a Jeb Bush Republican, only to spend the next three years breaking promise after promise on taxes, judges and spending, just to name a few."
The governor earlier Monday worked a crowd of elementary school students at Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary School, getting the kids to actually applaud his advice to do their homework. He praised the school for its straight-A record since 2001, and said it is a model for others to follow.
"Things are happening at this fundamental school," Crist said. "To be an 'A' school is a remarkable accomplishment."
Crist decided to visit the school after Rich Bekesh, the owner of Spring Engineering in Holiday, suggested he stop by to see what the school was doing differently.
Bekesh, whose three children attended the school, said because the school requires parental involvement and builds bonds between family and school life, it was something he wanted to bring to the governor's attention.
"You all know what you want to be," Crist told the students. "Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it."
He said the same applies to making schools in Florida better.
"It takes a little money to get there, but we're going to do it," Crist said.
Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.