Talk about a rough start to the new year.
The ouster of Gov. Charlie Crist's hand-picked Republican Party chairman looks like only the start of Crist's problems as he faces a tougher U.S. Senate campaign than he ever expected.
His emergency management chief quit this week under fire, and his juvenile justice administrator is under investigation for excessive travel. Any day now U.S. Senate rival Marco Rubio is expected to report another improved fundraising quarter.
And this has to hurt: Republican activists who know Crist best, members of the Pinellas Republican executive committee, are scheduled to hold a "straw poll" Monday where Rubio is favored to emerge as the preferred U.S. Senate nominee of Crist's home county.
Perhaps most ominous of all, there's no clear way for Crist to shift the momentum Rubio has been steadily gaining for months.
"There has long been a suspicion, even among his supporters, that Charlie Crist is a nice guy who is barely Republican, doesn't have any core beliefs or any vision for governing,'' said Republican consultant Albert Martinez, a Rubio supporter in Tallahassee. "Charlie Crist's embrace of Barack Obama and his policies is emblematic of who Charlie Crist is at his core, which is a systemic problem that can't be fixed by a poll or TV ad."
It's a sign of his precarious standing that Crist lately is having to vehemently deny rumors that he may pull the plug on his Senate campaign and run for re-election as governor instead. His campaign also is brushing off the significance of Crist potentially losing a popularity vote among activists in his home county, even while it works the phones to lock in supporters and avoid the embarrassment.
"Pinellas Republicans know Charlie Crist. They know his heart, they know the kind of public servant he is. I'm confident that in the end Pinellas County Republicans will support Charlie Crist countywide," said Crist campaign manager Eric Eikenberg, downplaying the significance of county GOP straw polls that Rubio has won across the state. "We have greater faith in Republican voters as a whole, not just a smaller group."
Crist remains the favorite 32 weeks from election day, but politics is a game of momentum and for months all the momentum has been on Rubio's side.
The governor is heading toward another rough and unpredictable legislative session while at least one pillar of his candidacy — that he's unbeatable — is shot. Another pillar — electability — is shaky, with some polls showing Rubio beating Democrat Kendrick Meek in the general election.
"We haven't heard that much about Rubio's record and I am certain Crist will spend a good portion of his war chest on that," said Republican consultant Kirk Fordham, a former Mel Martinez aide.
For now, Crist is the national poster boy for endangered moderate Republicans, and the average of recent Crist vs. Rubio polls compiled by Pollster.com shows Crist leading among Republican voters by just 4 percentage points.
Crist and Rubio allies alike expect the Crist campaign to begin attacking Rubio's conservative credentials. Rather than let the primary be merely a referendum on Crist's performance, the campaign hopes to escalate doubts about Rubio.
"The Republicans I talk to may have concerns about Gov. Crist, but they don't know anything about Rubio,'' said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a Crist backer who contends that on issues ranging from cap-and-trade to spending, former state House Speaker Rubio is not the pure conservative many voters think he is. "I'm a big believer in defining your opponent and educating the voters about who he really is."
End-of year fundraising totals are due next week, but so far Crist has a significant financial advantage. Through the first three quarters of 2009, Rubio had about $900,000 available to spend on the primary and Crist more than $4 million. Nobody expects Rubio to match Crist, but it's no longer viewed as a certainty that Crist can overwhelmingly drown out Rubio.
The more Florida's Senate race is increasingly nationalized as the biggest battle for direction of the GOP — the New York Times Magazine on Sunday features a takeout on the race — the less Crist's financial advantage matters.
Clearly, Crist is reaching out to the conservative base. On Friday, his campaign made a release declaring he would fight for "pro-life legislative efforts," a change from his position as a candidate in 2006, when he said, "I would prefer not to change law, I would rather change hearts." And earlier in the week, he launched an online petition drive demanding Democrats give more transparency to the health care debate.
"You can only control the things you can control, and you have to work very hard at the things you can control,'' said Justin Sayfie, a lobbyist and former aide to Gov. Jeb Bush. "He can't wave a magic wand and make the Florida economy hum like it was three years ago. At the same time, how government responds to the fiscal crisis is something he can control and can influence and I think Florida voters want to see how you respond."
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.