Facing GOP Heat, Crist May Go Independent
WASHINGTON - Four years ago, a kiss from then-president George W. Bush helped launch longtime Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman on a promising career as a political independent. Now, the question is whether a hug from President Obama will do the same for Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist.
By Friday, Crist must decide whether to abandon an Aug. 24 GOP primary for the U.S. Senate he was once favored to win and instead mount a bid as an independent.
"Gov. Crist doesn't have a lot of options if he wants to be elected," says Bob Graham, a Democrat who won five Florida races: two for governor, three for senator.
Crist's decision could set up an intriguing test case in a year when public opinion polls show a distaste for partisanship, but activists in both parties press for ideological consistency over compromise.
"Both sides seem drawn to their respective corners," says John Hill, an Indiana University law professor and author of the new book The Political Centrist.
Like Lieberman, who went from Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 to Democratic primary loser six years later, Crist has plummeted from national prominence.
Also like Lieberman, Crist has had to answer for a presidential public display of affection.
The images became powerful and, to the party faithful, infuriating symbols of the politicians' willingness to support a president of the opposite party: In Lieberman's case, he backed Bush's war in Iraq. For Crist, it was Obama's economic stimulus package.
Considered a potential running mate in 2008 for Republican John McCain, Crist had a 35-pecentage-point lead last May in Florida polls over his GOP primary challenger, former state House speaker Marco Rubio.
That was before Rubio launched a campaign centered on "the hug" between Obama and Crist last year. Rubio became a favorite of anti-tax and anti-big-government Tea Party activists. A recent Quinnipiac Poll shows Rubio with a 23-point lead over Crist.
Crist has said he wants to be "very, very thoughtful and deliberate" about whether to bolt the GOP.
By skipping a primary showdown with Rubio, Crist could take his case to all of the state's 11 million voters instead of relying only on roughly 4 million GOP voters.
Two polls out last week showed Crist and Rubio tightly bunched with Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, in a hypothetical three-way matchup.
In 2006, Lieberman proved that a politician can survive rejection by his political base.
That year, he lost a primary for another Senate term. Democrat Ned Lamont's campaign featured buttons with the picture of Bush bussing Lieberman's head at a State of the Union address. It read: Bush's favorite Democrat.
Lieberman became an independent and defeated Lamont, Republican Alan Schlesinger and two minor-party candidates in the general election.
In the Senate, Lieberman is sought after by both parties.
The Connecticut senator, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has repeatedly described his lack of party affiliation as "liberating."
Rubio is dealing with an issue of his own. The Miami Herald reported last week that the IRS is investigating Rubio's tax records after it was discovered he spent GOP money on personal expenses while leading the state House.
Rubio has admitted he inadvertently double-billed the party and paid back some money.
The IRS investigation hasn't stopped prominent Republicans, including former vice president Dick Cheney and ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, from endorsing Rubio last week.
The Florida GOP issued a legal memo reminding committee members of a "loyalty oath" that bars them from helping non-GOP candidates.
A number of Republicans who back Crist warned the governor they'll bolt if he runs as an independent. "I am clearly going to support the Republican nominee," former senator Mel Martinez told USA TODAY in comments echoed by McCain and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the head of the GOP's Senate campaign committee.
They say Crist will have a harder time running as an independent than Lieberman. "It was easy for people to vote for Joe," Martinez notes, because he was an incumbent. Crist, on the other hand, seeks to switch jobs as a sitting governor of a state where the unemployment rate is 12.3(PERCENT).
Fundraising could also prove a challenge. Lieberman, an orthodox Jew who was the first member of his faith on a major-party presidential ticket, relied on a national base of Jewish donors and affluent GOP moderates in his home state, says Lanny Davis, a prominent Democrat who stuck with his friend Lieberman. "That's what enabled him to finance his campaign."
If Crist turns independent, Mike Connolly of the Club for Growth, which backs Rubio, said the group will urge Republicans to demand refunds.
Money shouldn't be a problem for Crist as long as the polls aren't, countered John Droney, a former Connecticut state Democratic chairman who backed Lieberman in 2006. "Very few money people are ideological," he said. "If it looks like he's going to win, they're going to give."