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Uncertain times, wild card Crist keep Senate seat cold

Maybe Mel Martinez's Senate seat is radioactive. How else do you explain why so many top-tier candidates — Jeb Bush, Alex Sink, Bill McCollum — are taking a pass on the extraordinary opportunity of an open U.S. Senate seat?

In fact, their reasons are mostly individualized. The timing is wrong. Their internal polling is weak. They'd prefer to run for governor in 2014. Or they simply don't want to risk losing in this volatile and unpredictable political climate.

"It's baffling to me,'' said Republican strategist George LeMieux. "But I think in uncertain political times, a lot of folks are thinking they should hold on to what they have."

There's also a giant shadow looming over the race: Charlie Crist.

Barely a day has gone by in recent weeks that some prominent Republican or Democrat hasn't asked: "You hearing anything about Crist jumping in?"

In a word, no. The governor has expressed zero interest in running for Senate, his political advisers haven't given the slightest hint that he is looking at it, and even Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp told a group in Bonita Springs the other day that he expected he and Crist would run for re-election.

But it's a testament to Crist's remarkable popularity in these remarkably rocky times for Florida that almost everybody thinks he'd walk away with the race if he got in. Chief Financial Officer Sink says Crist had nothing to do with her decision to stay put, but at last week's inauguration of President Obama, a lot her Democratic allies from Florida were speculating that the prospect of Crist's running helped convince her to stay put in the state Cabinet.

"I have talked to him about the U.S. Senate seat, but I'm pretty certain those conversations were between the two of us,'' said Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, who launched his U.S. Senate campaign this week.

"I don't view him by any measure as an enemy,'' said Gelber, heaping praise on the Republican governor's bipartisanship.

Crist would clear the Republican field just as surely as Jeb Bush would have.

"Everyone on the Republican side that's talking about running would step aside and acknowledge that Charlie Crist would be the best candidate,'' said Republican former state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, one of those talking about running.

Crist has not yet completely slammed the door on a Senate bid, and national Republican leaders are pushing him to run, so it's likely the Crist speculation will continue for some time. One could certainly make the case for his changing jobs.

Being one of 100 senators would be a whole lot easier, after all, than being a governor of a state as mired in challenges as Florida is now. And for a career public servant like Crist, term-limited after 2014, a Senate seat would offer both long-term job security and a high-profile perch to run for, say, president down the line.

Don't forget the new bride, Carole Crist. Accustomed as she is to Manhattan/Hamptons/Miami living, wouldn't she prefer the more cosmopolitan lifestyle of Washington to St. Pete and Tallahassee? Ambitious politicians across Florida are mulling that question lately.

Of course, a Crist for Senate campaign would face that little question of switching jobs while Florida is in the toilet, mired in an economic meltdown and property insurance crisis.

"If you can name a worse time in the history of Florida in the memory of living men when the best and brightest were needed here to help us rather than skedaddle off, please tell me when that was,'' said Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, of Tallahassee. "Were he to ask my advice, which he has not, I would say, 'Before you move to another battlefield, win a fight in the battlefield where you are general now.' "

Until Crist actually announces his re-election campaign (Jeb Bush didn't announce until June), he will leave a lot of would-be senators wondering. And without him, Florida's open Senate race is shaping up as a remarkable opportunity with an unremarkable batch of contenders.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Uncertain times, wild card Crist keep Senate seat cold 01/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 3:54pm]

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