Charlie Crist Mans Up

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The White House meeting between the nation’s governors and President Barack Obama had just ended, and a bevy of chief executives was standing at the microphones in front of the entrance to the West Wing. Reporters were tossing questions about budget shortfalls and health care at the govs. Toward the front of the pack was Governor Charlie Crist, the Florida Republican who’s in a tough Senate primary contest against Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the state’s House of Representatives and a Tea Party darling. One reason this sitting governor might lost the GOP primary to his conservative challenger is that a year ago Crist eagerly supported Obama’s stimulus bill and hugged the president when Obama visited Florida.

Governor Crist, I shouted to get his attention, and he turned toward me. Last week, I asked, a number of leading Republicans in Washington claimed that Obama’s stimulus has created no new jobs—is that an accurate assessment of what’s happened in Florida? Without pause, Crist replied, it is “not the case in Florida.” He reported that the stimulus legislation has “created or maintained” 87,000 jobs, including 20,000 education positions, in the Sunshine State. The stimulus was “necessary,” he added, for preserving jobs in Florida.

Several reporters near me raised their eyebrows. This was an unambiguous answer—and a direct shot at Washington Republicans, Rubio, and the Tea Party crowd. I followed up: then why are Washington GOPers saying the stimulus hasn’t produced any jobs? It’s a “political year,” Crist said, adding that the stimulus was “important” to the effort to fight unemployment.

Another reporter chimed in: “Any regrets” about accepting the stimulus money? Crist shot back, “I don’t apologize for it at all.” And in defense of his man-hug of Obama, he explained that he was raised “to respect the presidency of the United States.” What about the criticism coming from Rubio for embracing Obama and the stimulus? this other reporter asked. “He’s wrong, and I’m right,” Crist said defiantly.

That ended this line of inquiry. There was nothing left for Crist to say. He had not tried to weasel out. Even though most political handicappers consider him a goner in the Rubio race—a soon-to-be victim of the Tea Party-ization of the GOP—Crist was not trimming his sails to make nice with the right wing of his party. It was a rare moment. The journalists watching were impressed—though none appeared to believe this stick-to-my-guns approach would benefit Crist in the GOP primary. Later on, a White House reporter remarked to me, “You don’t always get a chance to help a politician self-immolate.”

Perhaps. But it was encouraging to see a pol not bob and weave when it would be convenient for him to do so. Crist may be standing firm only because at this point he has nothing to lose. Clearly, he realizes his only chance is to take on the Tea Party, not to run scared. Moderate GOPers, if they still exist, can be proud of him.

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