The Crist conundrum

Associated Press
 Crist’s endorsement of McCain three days before the Florida primary is credited with helping the Arizona senator pull off a victory.

Associated Press Crist’s endorsement of McCain three days before the Florida primary is credited with helping the Arizona senator pull off a victory.

These are heady days for Gov. Charlie Crist. As he begins his second year in office, his popularity is still in the clouds and his environmental agenda has drawn praise from Democrats such as Al Gore and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He is embraced by Hollywood liberals even as his star rises in national Republican politics. No one should be surprised that Crist is being mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for John McCain.

Some might see Crist as an obvious choice. After all, he is the popular governor of the nation's fourth-largest state, which could decide the outcome of this year's presidential election. His endorsement of McCain three days before the Florida primary is credited with helping the Arizona senator pull off a victory that firmly established him as the Republican front-runner. At 72, McCain would be the oldest man to take the oath of president. So the conventional wisdom says he needs a young vice president. Crist is 20 years his junior, even though his hair is as white as McCain's (maybe Crist would consider a dye job).

No doubt Crist is savoring the attention and thinking, why not? Under Florida law, he would not have to even step down as governor in order to run for vice president. I can understand why it might be tempting for Crist. Being vice president is one of the best jobs in Washington. It comes with a White House office, a Secret Service bubble, a mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, an Air Force jet and other perks. The only specified duty of the vice president is to preside over the Senate, usually when his vote is needed to break a tie, and to be ready to serve as president if necessary. Otherwise, the job is what the president wants it to be. Dan Quayle was treated as a joke; Dick Cheney is a bully, even a co-president.

I would be surprised if McCain offers Crist the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket, but if he should, I hope the governor will graciously decline — for his own sake as well as McCain's.

For all his political skills and strengths, Crist is not the running mate McCain needs to turn on and turn out their party's social conservatives, whose support could be critical to McCain's success in November. Like McCain, he appeals to moderate Republicans and independents. If anything, he might be an even bigger turnoff for religious conservatives than McCain himself. To his admirers in Florida, Crist comes across as the anti-Jeb Bush, his predecessor in the governor's office and a conservative icon.

As a candidate, Crist refused to pander to social conservatives, and as governor he has largely ignored their concerns. If you ask him, he will say he opposes abortion. However, it's not on his political or legislative agenda. A proposed ban on gay marriage will be on the Florida ballot in November, but Crist has made it clear he does not intend to invest any of his time or political capital in this fight. To his credit, he says he has more important work to do as governor. His priorities have included trying to deal with a property insurance crisis, leading a successful campaign to lower property taxes, setting an environmental course to deal with climate change, and restoring the voting rights of felons. These are not the kind of issues that excite the hard right.

What about Crist's lack of Washington experience? The fact is, he has served in elective office longer than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. However, it has all been at the state level — state senator, education commissioner, attorney general and, since January 2007, as governor. Jimmy Carter served as a Georgia state senator and one-term governor before being elected president.

The question is not whether Crist is qualified to be vice president — he is — but whether he would be ready to be president at a time when the nation is fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, combatting terrorism at home and abroad, and facing serious economic problems. It could be a consideration for some voters because of McCain's age. Americans probably would feel better about voting for McCain if they believed his No. 2 would be ready to be president from day one, should it come to that.

Meanwhile, Crist needs to ask himself if he is ready for the intense scrutiny that comes with being a national candidate. He is a media darling these days, but the minute McCain gave him the nod, reporters would start fine-combing his record and his life for revealing political and personal nuggets. By the time Dan Quayle was sworn in as vice president, Democrats and pundits had defined him as a lightweight and a joke. He never overcame that image. Hey, Charlie, can you name the president of Slovenia?

As a candidate for governor, Crist, who is divorced, was the target of scurrilous rumors and personal smears in the blogosphere. In a national election, he could expect all of that garbage to be recycled and then some. So far, Crist has shown an amazing ability to shrug off the politics of personal destruction.

It's good to see Florida's governor getting national attention, and I don't wish to spoil the moment. But if McCain should make the offer, I hope Crist, who bills himself as "the people's governor,'' will decide to pass and rededicate himself to dealing with the difficult challenges clouding Florida's future.

Philip Gailey's e-mail address is

gailey@sptimes.com.

The Crist conundrum 03/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2008 5:02am]

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