By Campo-Flores, Arian
Newsweek , Vol. 156, No. 04
Byline: Arian Campo-Flores
Written off as out of step with the times, he's back--and out to show that centrists can win.
Not long ago, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist seemed like a dead pol walking. Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio was thrashing him in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. Crist's 30-point lead had swung to a 30-point deficit; funding was drying up, as were endorsements. "He's deader than the day before yesterday," former state GOP chair Tom Slade told the St. Petersburg Times in late April. "I don't think there's any way in the world he can rehabilitate himself." Crist's collegial centrism, the conventional wisdom held, had become anachronistic at a time when angry right-wing populism had overtaken his party.
Yet here we are, less than three months later: Crist, now running as an independent, leads Rubio by almost 5 points, and he's ahead of potential Democratic opponents by much more, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls. The stunning reversal raises a possibility with wider implications: "In this national environment of very polarized politics," says Daniel Smith, a political-science professor at the University of Florida, "voters may be interested in more moderate candidates."
It's still a long way to November, of course. Rubio remains a formidable challenger--and, given his announcement last week that he had raised a record-setting $4.5 million in the second quarter, a well-financed one. But through a mixture of deft maneuvering and plain good luck, Crist has somehow seized the momentum. During the spring legislative session, he vetoed two controversial bills pushed by overzealous Republican leaders--one dealing with teacher tenure, the other with abortion--thereby positioning himself as a bulwark against extremism. He has benefited from disarray in the Democratic primary, as the lackluster establishment candidate, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, fends off a challenge from a billionaire, Jeff Greene, who earned the nickname "meltdown mogul" by profiting from bets against the housing market. And Crist has gotten a lot of positive press--as well as an uptick in approval ratings--for his energetic response to the BP oil disaster that has gunked up Florida beaches with tar balls. In contrast to Rubio, who still supports offshore drilling, Crist has called the legislature to a special session this week to promote a constitutional ban against the practice.
Crist's resurgence also stems in part from his shift back to where he's always seemed most comfortable: the political center. That's where he's largely governed as the state's chief executive--pursuing a Republican agenda of low taxes and limited government, but also collaborating with Democrats on environmental issues and judicial appointments. The approach made him one of the most popular governors in the country. "He's got almost extraterrestrial instincts about the political pulse," says Mac Stipanovich, a Republican lobbyist and Crist supporter. "All he has to figure out is what you want to hear, and as long as it doesn't contradict something he said yesterday, you will probably hear it."
That trait has prompted criticism that Crist is a shape-shifter, with no firm convictions. It's not too far off the mark: his recent reversals on some matters (veering liberal on abortion, gay adoption, and "don't ask, don't tell") have been dizzying. But while political elites may get agitated over such slipperiness, average voters don't seem to care much. They "want someone who's a pragmatist," says Smith, adding that if Crist stands for anything, he "stands for the median voter."
Moderate candidates are particularly valued in Florida, where the electorate favors fiscal conservatism and social moderation. Campaigns are won along the state's midriff, from Tampa to Orlando, where swing voters reside in abundance. Florida is "generally a centrist place," says Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant based in Tallahassee. …