Gov. Charlie Crist may yet be the Comeback Kid.
Yes, a new opinion poll last week showed Crist trailing former state House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Yes, Rubio made the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Yes, the Miami Republican is the darling of the windbag Washington conservatives because he spouts their empty antigovernment rhetoric.
But last week marked the start of Crist's comeback.
The governor's remarks to a gathering of political reporters and editors in Tallahassee were particularly sharp. He hit the economy hard and spoke of specific efforts to cut taxes, recruit businesses and diversify. He struck a populist note by referring to the Public Service Commission's rejection of rate increases for Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light — following his appointment of two new commissioners. He touched on the purchase of thousands of acres for restoration of the Everglades and on higher national rankings for Florida's schools.
"Governing in times when money is flowing is easy; governing in times when money is not flowing is hard,'' Crist said. "Education is up in Florida. Crime is down in Florida. We're getting the fundamentals right.''
Too often, the governor wings his speeches and winds up with a string of mushy platitudes. This one was focused and a nice blend of empathy for struggling Floridians, initiatives to ease their pain and reminders that there are bright spots amid the economic gloom. Some of Crist's old confidence was back, and for a change he sounded more interested in the state's future than his own.
Rubio, who followed Crist, looked and sounded like a nervous teenager in his first bid for student council. He offered few specifics and tired sound bites about limited government and tax cuts. He naively argued for cutting the deficit and reining in entitlements only by reducing spending. He resurrected the failed Republican pitch to let people invest part of their Social Security money, a bad idea even before the recession wiped out many Americans' savings.
When reporters asked Rubio about subjects ranging from state Republican Party spending to his college teaching job to the scandal involving former House Speaker Ray Sansom, he was evasive and complained about "false issues.'' It was a pitiful performance, and the questions are only going to get harder.
The reason this Senate primary race has become a contest and captured the imagination of national conservatives is not because Rubio is a wunderkind. It's because Crist has spent most of the past 10 months or so hurting himself. He appeased developers by gutting growth management laws and appointed his friend and former chief of staff to keep the Senate seat warm. He sounded like he reversed his support for the stimulus and had no clue when the president was in the state. Some of it was small stuff, but it added up to a portrait of a guy scrambling to secure his future and not paying attention to his real job.
Last week, Crist got back on track.
He sounded like a practical conservative who is antitax but stands for something instead of opposing everything. He appointed more of his own people to the Board of Governors that oversees higher education, appropriately greeted President Barack Obama in Tampa when the president delivered money for high-speed rail, and unveiled a state budget proposal that starts to invest again in education and the environment.
Crist needs to remind Floridians he is the governor and act like it every day. His even demeanor has been an asset, but too often he appears weak when dealing with legislators and state party hacks. He needs to draw a line or two in the sand. He doesn't need to be mean, but he needs to be resolute.
There will be time to examine Rubio, who was for big rail projects before he was against them, supported cap-and-trade before he opposed it and steered millions of taxpayer dollars to special projects in his district. His image as the savior of the tea party extremists will be filled in by the reality of his thin legislative record.
The Republican primary for Senate has turned into a real contest, and Crist has mostly himself to blame. But the governor found his mojo last week, and unfortunately for Rubio the primary election is not in February. It's in August. And it's way too early to conclude an incumbent governor from Tampa Bay who has run statewide four times is going to be upset by a former House speaker from South Florida who has never run a statewide campaign.
It could happen, but I wouldn't bet the ranch.