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Governor on a Political Island Following Veto

Five hours after vetoing the teacher merit-pay bill pushed by House and Senate Republican leaders, Gov. Charlie Crist exited the Capitol for Leon High School, where he was cheered by teachers and students in a rally on the school steps.

Crist’s choice of a campaign-like stop Thursday at the oldest school in one of the state’s most decidedly Democratic counties may speak volumes about the governor’s future in the Republican Party.

“I think he’s got two huge strikes against him in the Republican Party,” said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida government professor in Crist’s hometown St. Petersburg. “First there was the hug for President Obama, and now the veto of Senate Bill 6. I don’t know what kind of support he has left among those who vote in a Republican primary.”

Crist’s veto coincided with the release of a new Quinnipiac University poll that showed the Republican governor 23 percentage points behind former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami among likely voters in the Aug. 24 GOP primary for U.S. Senate.

The survey, however, showed Crist narrowly edging both Rubio and presumptive Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek in a three-way general election contest, with the governor running as a candidate with “no party affiliation.”

Crist has until April 30, the end of the five-day federal qualifying period, to make up his mind.

After seeming to waffle, Crist issued a statement earlier this month rebuffing speculation that he’d break with his party. The declaration was a push-back to campaign finance reports that showed Rubio out-raising Crist three-to-one in the first three months of the year, erasing the governor’s once-formidable fund-raising edge.

But Crist now may have been pushed out onto a more remote political island with Thursday’s veto of the merit-pay bill.

The legislation was fiercely opposed by the Democratic-allied state’s largest teachers’ union, which helped organize a massive statewide protest of the legislation. It was advanced by a coalition of anti-union, Republican-allied business groups and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who were apparently so confident in Crist’s eventual support that they failed to seek or couldn’t raise any public support from teachers, parents, or others in the education community.

But those same forces which bring campaign money to Republican primary contests look ready to write-off Crist. Polls suggest a majority of GOP primary voters may have already done that.

“He’s taking a course which is probably opposite to what you want to take, to endear yourself more to the people right of center,” said Al Cardenas, a former Florida Republican Party chairman who was among those signing onto a full-page newspaper ad Thursday urging Crist to sign the bill.

“He’s got to be torn with what’s best for me and what’s best for the party,” said Cardenas, adding, “Politically, he really only has two choices: To run as an independent or not run because that primary is pretty much cooked.”

Some Republicans, though, weren’t ready to count out Crist – despite his alienation from a party base clearly shifting to the right.

“He is running as a Republican and as far as I know, he will continue to,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a longtime ally. “This was no longer a teachers’ union issue, this Senate Bill 6 and the opposition to it took on a life of its own.”

Fasano supported the legislation, which would have linked teacher salaries, in part, to student-performance on standardized tests. But he said that in his district, many Democrats, independents and “hardcore Republicans who vote in kind in Republican primaries contacted me” urging a veto.

“I believe that an overwhelming number of Republicans, maybe even a majority of them, had concerns with Senate Bill 6,” he said.

Fasano said the state’s Republican leadership discovered it was not in sync with the party’s voting base by pushing the legislation. Crist may still be able to tap into that support, he said.

“I believe that millions of people around the state realize that when they see something wrong and send that message to the governor, he hears it loud and clear,” Fasano added.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who sponsored the merit-pay legislation and doubles as chairman of the Florida Republican Party, offered only a lukewarm assessment of Crist’s future as a Republican.

“He’s got an `R’ (on the) back of his name right now,” Thrasher said. “(But) you’d have to ask him that if he believes he’s following the principles of the Republican Party.”

Michael Peltier and Kathleen Haughney of the News Service staff contributed to this report.

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