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  1. Florida Politics

Adam Smith: Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist, two self-serving politicians aiming for a comeback

Marco Rubio, left, and Charlie Crist. [Times files]
Marco Rubio, left, and Charlie Crist. [Times files]
Published Jun. 23, 2016

Their fortunes have been linked for the better part of a decade, two political rivals long contemptuous of each other but today sharing more in common than either would care to admit.

Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist, two talented and ferociously self-serving Florida politicians, are both campaigning for political comebacks this fall. Neither has much experience doing work in the private sector, neither wants to spend the next couple of years toiling unnoticed outside of Washington, and neither is a sure thing to avoid that fate.

Certainly, the odds favor Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Crist, 59, winning a South Pinellas congressional seat that has been redrawn to heavily favor a Democrat. Likewise, Rubio, 45, is the clear favorite to win a second term now that he has reversed his promise not to run again.

But each will be dogged by questions about being an opportunist who cares more about himself than his constituents.

Part of the reason Rubio was able to pull off an extraordinary upset over then-Gov. Crist in their 2010 Senate race is Crist never showed interest or commitment to the job voters elected him to do. Almost from the minute Crist became governor, he started campaigning for vice president, and when that didn't work out, he turned his attention to becoming a senator.

Similarly, almost from the minute he became a U.S. senator, Rubio started preparing for a presidential campaign. He showed little interest in the job itself, eventually dismissing it as insignificant in comparison to his presidential quest and routinely missing votes and committee hearings.

When the presidential campaign didn't work out — Donald Trump crushed him by 19 percentage points among Florida Republican primary voters — Rubio turned back to the U.S. Senate. George Balanchine could not have better choreographed Rubio's flip-flop re-entry into the 2016 Senate race.

First came Rubio taking Bill Nelson-like interest in Florida issues and Florida news outlets. Then came a series of news articles about how much Rubio loved his Senate work, and how he had been misunderstood when running for president and never actually diminished the importance of Senate work. That one was almost as laughable as Crist's claim in 2010 that changing his party registration from Republican to independent had nothing to do with GOP voters resoundingly rejecting him for Rubio.

Then came public pleas for Rubio to run again from national Republican leaders including Trump and Mitch McConnell. Finally, we heard the borderline exploitive story that with victims' bodies still lying inside the Pulse nightclub, Senate candidate and Rubio friend Carlos Lopez-Cantera sat in a pickup near the Orlando massacre scene and urged Rubio to run again.

"It's not about you. It's about our country and this election," Lopez-Cantera said he said, presumably with the national anthem playing as they spoke.

Probably Rubio and Crist will wind up together in Washington as rivals from different parties, nearly a decade after they worked together in Tallahassee as rivals from the same party. But both have serious obstacles, especially their self-seeking images.

An incumbent senator has an advantage, but Rubio faces a tough primary campaign over the next nine weeks from at least Bradenton businessman Carlos Beruff, who has signaled that he intends to spend $15 million more of his own money to win the nomination.

And Florida's junior senator understands better than most that the embrace of the Washington establishment is not always such an asset.

"While I believe Marco Rubio has a very bright future within the Republican Party, Charlie Crist is the best candidate in 2010 to ensure that we maintain the checks and balances that Floridians deserve in the United States Senate."

That was Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, endorsing then-Republican Crist for Senate seven years ago and all but telling Rubio to get out of the way. The current NRSC chairman, Roger Wicker, on Wednesday pretty much said the same thing to Republicans thinking of challenging Rubio for the nomination: "Sen. Rubio has made a lasting impact when it comes to standing up against the failed Obama agenda and has articulated a clear vision for making our country safer and more prosperous. His campaign will have the full support of the NRSC."

If and when Rubio wins the Republican nomination, he faces a general election campaign against U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy or U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. Unlike the 2010 tea party wave, when Rubio won in a three-way race against Democrat Kendrick Meek and independent Crist, he is running in a presidential election year that promises high Democratic turnout and a GOP nominee that many Republicans fear could be a drag on other candidates.

Crist, meanwhile, faces a potentially tough challenge from Republican incumbent David Jolly, who flip-flopped himself about running for re-election instead of the U.S. Senate in part because of Rubio. Lawmakers redrew the district to make it a safe Democratic seat that Barack Obama won by 11 percentage points, but recent polls indicate Jolly is actually beating Crist or close behind him.

Since 1992, Crist has run successfully for state Senate, education commissioner, attorney general, and, in 2006, governor. He gave that job up in 2010 to run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate, and in 2014 ran unsuccessfully for governor again.

At some point, voters expect leaders to do their jobs and not keep looking for the next one. We'll soon see whether they decide enough is enough with Rubio and Crist.

In the meantime, Crist does not rule out running for governor again in 2018, and Rubio does not rule out running for president again in 2020.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.