For the congenitally sunny Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, these have been dark days. Polls have shown his Republican Senate primary contest against Marco Rubio tightening. County GOP executive committees have continued to hand him overwhelming defeats in straw polls. He's faced withering news reports, like one recently in the Miami Herald, that have fed an image that he's more concerned with his political career than with the people's business.
So Crist could have done without a pair of dispiriting developments over the weekend. First, there was the news that Dede Scozzafava pulled out of the race for New York's 23rd Congressional District. The collapse of her brand of moderate Republicanism will only strengthen a building narrative: that in the battle over the soul of the GOP, the die-hard conservatives are winning. That will surely embolden the ideological purists in Florida who have been gunning for Crist ever since he embraced Obama's stimulus package (and embraced the president himself, in a now-famous man-hug at a rally in Ft. Myers). Then there was the release Sunday of a new poll by the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times showing that Crist's favorability rating, which defied gravity for years, has plummeted to an all-time low. Only 42 percent of Floridians think he's doing a good or excellent job, compared to 55 percent who consider his performance fair or poor. Among GOP voters, he didn't fare much better, with 51 percent of them judging his work fair or poor. On ABC's This Week on Sunday, George Will went so far as to predict that Rubio will "absolutely" beat Crist in the Senate primary.
That's a bold prediction, but premature, in my view. The same Herald/Times poll showed that despite the tightening contest, Crist still leads Rubio by 22 points. The Florida governor is a savvy campaigner and a formidable fundraiser, with a war chest that dwarfs Rubio's. And we're still nine months away from the primary date. But the spate of bad news for Crist will, I think, usher in a more spirited and aggressive phase of the race. So far, Crist has essentially ignored his rival, refusing to engage him and opting to float above the fray. That approach probably isn't tenable for much longer. Rubio has been riding a wave of positive press for months now, including sympathetic stories in conservative publications like The Weekly Standard and the National Review (on whose cover he appeared in September). The Crist campaign needs to blunt that momentum, and soon. The candidate himself may maintain his distance, but look for surrogates to start punching back hard against Rubio. You could see a hint of what's to come in a Web site that popped up recently, truthaboutrubio.com, which says it's "dedicated to exposing the REAL Marco Rubio, not the myth." It's a pretty amateurish effort, but surely there's more sophisticated stuff to come.