Crist's Rogue Gamble Paying Off?

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 8:20 AM PDT

Charlie Crist's own version of "going rogue," of ditching the Republican Party and running for US Senate as an independent candidate, looks more shrewd by the day. Pilloried for abandoning the GOP that helped elect him Florida governor, Crist has now jumped out to a double-digit lead in Florida's Senate race, pulling away from Democrat Kendrick Meek and Republican Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite. A new poll by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Cherry Communications shows Crist with 42 percent backing, Rubio with 31 percent, and Meek with a measly 14 percent.

Crist's 11 percent lead over Rubio is by far his largest since ditching the GOP in late April. After declaring himself an independent, Crist has steadily built up his advantage over Rubio, who by contrast has slipped in the polls and was even named "Loser of the Week" by the St. Petersberg Times this weekend. A couple of financial ethics mini-scandals by Rubio, including double-billing taxpayers for travel costs, have contributed to the Tea Party rockstar's waning popularity.

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So what's driving Crist's boost in the polls? If the Florida Chamber poll is any measure, Crist's surge is all about the issues. Says Marian Johnson, an executive with the chamber, about its latest poll:

Interestingly, our poll also shows immigration and property taxes to be in the top three issues concerning Floridians for the first time in several years. Though the economy and job creation will certainly be weighing heavily on voters' minds going into the 2010 election cycle, education and the oil spill in the gulf are now two of the most important issues to voters and will become increasingly important on a statewide level. (Italics mine)

Crist, you'll remember, scored a major victory in mid April, foreshadowing his ugly breakup with the GOP, by vetoing a statewide education bill that would have both closely linked teacher pay to student test scores and eliminated tenure for new teachers. Crist deemed the GOP-backed bill ill-conceived, and said it lacked sufficient input from teachers and parents. His rejection of the measure won him the support of teachers' unions and parents, who'd openly protested the bill with picketing and walk-outs. Crist even won the co-endorsement of the Florida Education Association, which usually backs Democrats. (Meek also won FEA's endorsement.) On the BP oil spill, Crist's position is a bit more shaky: While he secured millions from the oil giant for advertisements touting Florida's beaches and tourism, he's been ripped by Democrats and Republicans alike for what they say is a sluggish, half-hearted response to the growing crisis threatning Florida's shores.

Then again, the response to the spill from Marco Rubio, Crist's main challenger, hasn't been that notable, either. On education, one of the most important issues to Florida voters, Rubio's out to lunch; the "Issues" section on his campaign website doesn't even mention education. And on immigration, Rubio's pulled a major flip-flop. He initially said he opposed Arizona's draconian immigration law, but soon after switched positions and came out in support of it.

In the end, though, Crist's success may not depend so much on Rubio as on Kendrick Meek, the Democratic also-ran who's currently a US House member representing southern Florida. If Meek, son of political powerbroker Carrie Meek, drums up some momentum in the coming months, he could snatch those crucial independent and moderate voters that Crist is counting on, and undercut the Florida governor's growing popularity. But if Meek continues his poor run of form, then that leaves large swaths of undecided, middle-of-the-road voters for Crist to seize. And right now, those voters are there for the taking.

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