TALLAHASSEE — The governor who gave his final State of the State speech Tuesday night was remarkably different from the man who delivered his first formal address just three years ago.
In 2007, Charlie Crist was heralded as the new breed of Republican, surviving the Democratic wave of 2006 and talking about putting people before partisanship. He kicked off his opening session by calling for paper trails for voting machines and higher pay for strong teachers and invoking Robert F. Kennedy. Democrats clapped louder than fellow Republicans.
"Isn't it wonderful to have a governor saying Democratic things?'' Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said at the time.
But the seeds of Crist's current troubles were planted in that speech. Eschewing ideologues and touting post-partisanship worked great in 2007. Today, in a Republican primary, it looks like poison.
The man addressing the Legislature on Tuesday night is no longer a national model for Republican success, but rather a national model for endangered Republicans. He is a Republican Senate candidate fighting for his political life and he sounded less like Mr. Nice Guy than a combative and unapologetic candidate determined to cast frontrunner Marco Rubio as small and petty.
"Our practical solutions will serve only to inflame extremists. Take heart, knowing that it is we problem-solvers — and not they — who will move our Florida forward,'' said Crist in a barely disguised swat at Rubio, who has relentlessly criticized Crist for endorsing the $787 billion federal stimulus package. "We must accept being in the arena means enduring hecklers in the cheap seats where conviction abounds."
Rubio is leading Crist by double digits in recent polls, and many observers think it's already too late for Crist to claw his way back. But the 60-day legislative session offers the governor what may be his best and last opportunity to win over the large swath of primary voters who have yet to tune into the contest and know next to nothing about Rubio, the former state House speaker from Miami.
Amid dire economic conditions in Florida, the white-haired governor has the opportunity to show himself as the mature, purposeful leader, against a 38-year-old upstart ideologue trying to score political points.
"While there is great virtue in being true to your principles, conviction must be tempered with practicality and pragmatism,'' said Crist, one of many statements sure to feed speculation that Crist is considering running for the Senate as an independent instead of Republican.
The governor has happily left the heavy lifting to legislators in prior sessions, but this year he can't afford to look disengaged.
"He needs to be strong and should be very aggressive and very visible during the session advocating his agenda,'' said Republican former legislator Curt Kiser, a Crist supporter.
It doesn't help that Crist submitted a budget proposal built heavily on hundreds of millions of dollars from a gaming compact that lawmakers have not approved.
Senate President Jeff Atwater never mentioned the governor in his opening remarks, while House Speaker Larry Cretul took a clear swipe at Crist's budget plans:
"We will balance our budget with the dollars we have . . . not ones that may possibly arrive at some point in the future," Cretul said. "Now if those dollars do come to us, then we will put them to use. But we won't base our budget on a wink and a prayer."
For a governor whose trademark is showering everyone with kindness, it's striking how many Republican colleagues are quietly rooting for Crist's downfall. Virtually every Republican legislator voted last year for a budget propped up by more than $5 billion in stimulus money, but Tuesday they coolly sat on their hands as Crist spoke of how much that money helped Florida.
"Anything that Charlie Crist says and anything that Charlie Crist does now that he is a candidate for the U.S. Senate is going to be viewed through the lens of politics and is going to be judged by the Legislature and going to be judged by the voters of Florida accordingly,'' said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton. "The governor made the affirmative decision not to run for re-election so although there was talk about steering the ship through difficult times, we're going to continue to face difficult times beyond this year."
Crist stressed Tuesday night that he has no regrets about his first three years in office. That may be true, but it's likely his fourth year as governor will be the toughest of his entire political career.
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]