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Some Question Purpose of Senate Vacancy Dance

With Charlie Crist heading into his second week accepting applications for a U.S. Senate vacancy, talk is getting louder that the process is focusing more on the governor’s own political future than filling Mel Martinez’s spot.

Crist has requested applications from a cross-section of prominent Republicans – including a black woman, two Hispanics, and contenders who could potentially quiet the party’s more conservative wing.

“Any good politician knows how to cover all his political bases, and that’s exactly what it looks like Gov. Crist is doing with this process,” said Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University. “It’s his way of campaigning for the Senate seat, even when he’s not campaigning.”

The only clear requirement for applicants is that they agree to relinquish the Senate seat when Martinez’s term ends in 16-months.

Crist, who has already raised a record $4.2 million for his campaign, is the runaway favorite to win the seat in November 2010. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio is challenging him in the Republican primary, while U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek is the likely Democratic nominee.

“As the governor has always done, he’s going to look for someone who is qualified, has a good understanding of the public policy issues that are taking place in Washington, and someone who loves Florida and loves public service,” said Florida Republican Chairman Jim Greer. “There are quite a number of people who would fill that position.”

Democrats, though, are steamed by Crist’s approach.

“When Mel Martinez stepped down, we said that the process should not turn into a political football,” said Florida Democratic spokesman Eric Jotkoff. “Unfortunately, it looks like Charlie Crist is doing just that.”

Martinez announced he was stepping down Aug. 7. A week later, Crist said he would begin taking applications for the spot: soliciting forms from former Secretary of State Jim Smith, former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez, and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who quickly withdrew his name from consideration.

Since then, former state Rep. Jennifer Carroll of Green Cove Springs, University of North Florida President John Delaney, and Crist’s former campaign advisor, George LeMieux have also been interviewed for the job by the governor.

Other names mentioned as possible replacements include retiring U.S. Rep. Bill Young of Indian Rocks Beach and former state Sen. Daniel Webster of Winter Garden, a favorite of evangelical conservatives, a flank of the GOP never close to Crist.

Crist and Webster huddled Friday in Orlando.

“Generally, to these various constituencies, it looks like the governor is doing a good job of considering a wide range of applicants with different skills and experience,” said Darryl Paulson, a government professor at the University of South Florida. “But after looking at these applicants, if he chooses someone else, well, he runs the risk of some thinking it was all a charade, and that could hurt him.”

The jockeying for the job intensified this week.

The National Rifle Association’s Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, came out endorsing Smith – a move that could resonate with Crist, who recently opposed Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by saying he considered her weak on gun rights.

Associated Industries of Florida President Barney Bishop urged Crist on Friday against choosing Roberto Martinez.

“One thing Florida does not need is a new senator with a history of trying to raise taxes on the hard working families of Florida or supporting special groups like trial lawyers,” Bishop said. “It would be a costly mistake to give Florida’s open Senate seat to someone who would support policies that add an even greater burden to our businesses and employers across our state.”

Crist is expected to choose Mel Martinez’s successor in time for the replacement to take a seat when the Senate returns following its August recess. Whatever the outcome, Crist’s application approach has heightened focus on the selection.

“You’ve got a lot of potential candidates and constituencies getting their hopes up,” said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist. “There’s risk involved in that.”

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