The last laugh?



The conservative purists have long been gunning for Charlie Crist, the moderate Republican Florida governor whose quest for the GOP Senate nomination has been cratering for months. The purists are currently in the process of lifting him by the scruff of the neck, and heaving him onto the curb. They've made it clear that there's no room for Crist inside the purified Republican party. They're saying, in so many words, that he should buzz off and slink away.

However, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, it doesn't appear that Crist has any intention of going gently in that good night. He now seems poised to relaunch himself as an independent candidate for the open Senate seat - setting up a three-way autumn skirmish with Democrat Kendrick Meek and conservative Republican flavor of the year Marco Rubio; offering voters a stark choice between moderate pragmatism and tea-party fervor; and putting the conservative purists on notice that their cleansing impulses could wind up costing the Republicans a Senate seat.

If Crist goes the independent route - and, by all indications, he apparently will; under state law, a decision must be made by next Friday - the Florida race could become a de facto national referendum on the tea party, testing the limits of its political appeal in a highly diverse and populous state.

The GOP purists in Florida would be wise to avoid overconfidence; last November, in the special election in New York's 23rd congressional district, a tea-party conservative shoved aside his moderate Republican rival - and wound up losing the strongly Republican district to a Democrat in a three-way tally.

In other words, Crist may well get the last laugh. No doubt he would find that satisfying, given all the right-wing attacks he has weathered while doing his gubernatorial best for his economically beleaguered citizenry. The main difference between him and the purists is that he actually has the responsibility to govern in ways that might help better the lives of real people in real ways.

Early last year, Crist failed the right's key litmus test: he accepted Barack Obama's federal stimulus money, and used the earmarked billions to alleviate the worst pain of the economic crisis in his state. And he continues to defend his decision. A couple months ago, after a White House meeting with fellow governors, he said that the stimulus money had "created or maintained 87,000 jobs" in Florida, that the money had been "important" and "necessary," and that "I don't apologize for it at all." He could not have found a better way to drive more conservative Floridians into the arms of Marco Rubio, who, of course, has said he would never have taken that money.

The thing is, Crist generally has been a popular governor - precisely because he's non-ideological, tacking left or right on an issue-by-issue basis. Conservatives, however, have long compiled a list of grievances: Crist tapped a black Democrat with a strong civil rights record for the state Supreme Court; he actually thinks that global warming is real; he doesn't think Roe v. Wade should be overturned; he has challenged the insurance companies by slapping a lid on homeowners' insurance premiums, stuff like that.

He'd package that record for an independent Senate run, and make the case that probem-solving pragmatism is preferable to gridlocked partisan bickering. His task would not be easy; some Florida analysts believe that such a bid would peak on the day of announcement, and subsequently sag like a bad souffle. The price tag for a Florida campaign is extremely steep - it costs as much as $2 million a week to run TV ads in all the far-flung media markets - and we can assume that well-heeled establishment Republican donors wouldn't give Crist a dime if he bolts the party and challenges Rubio as an outsider.

On the other hand, he has universal name ID in Florida (unlike Rubio, a former state House speaker, and unlike Meek, a black congressman from heavily Democratic Miami), and, as sitting governor, he'd attract "free media" coverage at every turn. He is popular among many Democrats, which means he could take votes from Meek. He is popular with moderate Republicans (who do exist), which means he could take votes from Rubio. Indeed, a Quinnipiac poll last week found that, in a three-way race, Crist draws 32 percent of the vote; Rubio, 30 percent; Meek, 24 percent.

Some skeptics point out that, according to the Florida registration records, only 22 percent of the state's voters are independents. True enough. But in Florida, as everywhere else, there's a large pool of disgruntled voters - Democratic and Republican registrants - who yearn for viable "third party" choices because they're fed up with the two-party ideological gridlock. These voters might be drawn to Crist, as someone who'd work in the Senate across party lines (and he certainly would work with Democrats, since he would owe the Republicans nothing). In fact, Matt Towery, a southern-based conservative analyst, speculated the other day "that liberal, independent and centrist-minded voters may react to the increasingly polarizing political atmosphere in the nation by embracing avowedly moderate candidates like Crist."

Or, another scenario: Crist, on election day, might simply siphon off enough voters to elevate Meek to the top of the tally.

All told, a Crist independent candidacy would seriously complicate the conservative purists' plan to add Rubio to the GOP's Senate obstruction team. They wanted Crist out, and now they're getting their wish. But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.