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Daniel Ruth

Nice guys finish last, governor

That Mr. Bluebird roosting on Gov. Charlie Crist's shoulder has sure left a pile of political poo-poo on his nice senatorial suit of ambition.

You know things aren't going well on the journey to the Potomac when even Crist's hometown Republicans have started to treat the governor with all the love and respect of Tiger Woods' wife discovering her husband makes Hedonism II look like Lourdes.

A few days ago a straw poll conducted by Pinellas County Republicans resulted in a 106-54 slapdown of Crist in favor of his GOP U.S. Senate primary opponent, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. This would be like Frank Sinatra losing out to Bob Dylan's Christmas album in a straw vote conducted in Hoboken.

Now it is certainly true a straw vote taken in any political climate has about as much legitimacy as Afghanistan's last presidential election. Perhaps it would be unfair to suggest the fix was in against the governor by the Rubio forces in the Pinellas straw vote, but yes, that was probably the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley beaming with pride from his perch up in the greased palm in the sky.

This was supposed to be a cakewalk for the governor, who entered office on a wave of popular support, which has slowly eroded away as Rubio steadily has emerged as the beefcake boy of the Glenn Beck tea bag fellow travelers. Fun group.

The Pinellas straw vote has come on the heels of several other similar test matches around the state in which Rubio has deftly managed to consistently come out ahead of Crist. The straw polls in and of themselves, while meaningless, have nevertheless chipped away at Crist's image of invulnerability and inevitability of becoming the Republican Senate candidate. And in public life, fairly or not, perception can quickly become reality.

Governor? Welcome to reality. And it isn't pretty, is it?

And thus Mr. Zippity-Doo-Dah now has found himself in the political grudge match of his heretofore pretty unruffled hustings career. More pointedly, if Crist doesn't do something now to begin to reverse Rubio's challenge, by this time next year the governor might have to get a real job. Uh-oh.

Things have always come easy to Charlie Crist — the Florida Senate, education commissioner, attorney general and eventually governor. It's amazing just how far a warm smile, a firm handshake and spit-polished shoes can carry one in life. This has been like having Pat Sajak running the state.

So it is that the governor, for all his charm and warmth and hail fellow well met persona, has discovered he runs the risk of becoming Tallahassee's answer to Arthur Miller's Willie Loman — a man who is liked, but not well liked.

While Rubio is running up more magazine cover stories than David Hasselhoff's latest rehab stint, Charlie Crist has to ask himself a simple question, or two. Just how badly does he want to be Florida's next U.S. senator? How hard is he willing to fight for it?

Somehow, the governor's opponents had gained some traction in portraying Crist as a Republican conservative apostate, which is a bit like suggesting the Dalai Lama is an international playboy. Indeed, Mr. Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy has received some very good, very sound advice on how recoup his political mojo — be more gubernatorial, execute a few more people, avoid even fist-bumping a Democrat.

You could also add this — Charlie Crist needs to get angry, roiled, wadded and royally honked-off, or words to that effect.

There are no rules in a knife fight. And as the governor is learning much to his dismay, his problems with Rubio have precious little to do ultimately with doubts about his conservative bona fides, or his administrative policies, or whether he once appeared on a dais with the president of the United States. Oh, the phony horror of it all.

Charlie Crist's real problem is that his graciousness, his perennial sunny disposition, have allowed his opponents to cast him as a milquetoast. He's Robert Vaughn cowering in a corner in The Magnificent Seven. He is allowing himself to be tagged as wimp. Charlie Crist is soft on — Charlie Crist. And in politics, that is the death penalty.

All pols love to blather on about how much of a fighter they are, fighting for you and you and you. Why, you'd think the political scene was filled with a bunch of Mike Tysons.

Still, the public does seem to warm to the image of a fighter. When it comes to Crist, what the body politic is getting is the slapped soldier in Patton.

So if the governor really wants to be the next senator, he better get in touch with his inner Sean Penn and quick. Give 'em hell, Charlie. Has sort of a retro ring to it, doesn't it?

Hey, it worked for Harry Truman. Oops, he was a dreaded Democrat. Sorry.

Nice guys finish last, governor 01/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010 4:36pm]

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