Florida Governor Charlie Crist seemed like a political lame duck earlier this year when he left the Republican Party to launch an independent senatorial bid. The odds were against him: GOP rival Marco Rubio was riding a swell of Tea Party support, the RNC cut their ties and anti-incumbency anger only continued to grow, which seemed to spell doom for Crist. As the oil crisis drags on, the governor has made up some of the ground he lost. Could BP's ruin be Crist's political salvation?
Crist once toed the Republican Party line with the best of them: He played the "pro-life" game, spoke out for gun rights, and played a leading role in his state's culture wars, like when he supported plans to ban gay people from adopting. In recent weeks, however, Crist has moved more toward the center: he vetoed a bill that would require women to get an ultrasound prior to having an abortion -- a move that cemented his more "moderate" view on the issue -- and insisted this weekend that he supports the Obama administration's lift on Cuban travel restrictions, when he said, "I do support the embargo, and I think that what the current administration has done by allowing families to visit is compassionate." The most conspicuous shift, however, comes in the form of Crist's oil stance.
In 2008, when Crist's name was still being bandied about as John McCain's running mate, Crist, who did have a "clean energy" past, claimed that offshore drilling was not only safe, but also economically essential. "We have to be sympathetic to the pocketbooks of the people of Florida and what they're paying at the pump for gas, and balance that with: Is there any way that our state might be able to contribute in terms of resources to have greater supply and therefore lower prices?" contended Crist. "If that's possible, through good technology or whatever it might be, I think an open-minded person understands that we ought to at least study it."
Now that tar balls from the Deepwater Horizon spill have started reaching Florida's pristine beaches, Crist has unequivocally changed his tune. "If this spew in middle of the Gulf of Mexico doesn't tell us we need to be more cautious and more careful about doing this in the future, I don't know what else would," Crist asserted. "I mean, we don't have these rigs off the Florida coast. We are suffering from the one off the Louisiana coast. It troubles me greatly that that's occurring," he argued. "If this doesn't make the case that we have got to go to clean energy ... I don't know what does." Crist's campaign website now touts the candidate's opposition to offshore drilling. Rubio, meanwhile, still maintains that offshore drilling can't be beat.
Polls are notoriously hard to decipher: voters don't necessarily follow one line of thinking, and it can be difficult to break down why they support one candidate over another. Regardless, they're endlessly exploited for political analysis, and polls from the last few months indicate that Crist may soon ride a swell of support. On April 22, just before Crist turned Independent, Rubio held a seven-point lead over the governor. Crist's Republican revolt garnered him a slight lead: four points, which were lost a mere two weeks later, when Rubio led by eight points. Fast forward a bit, to a time after the oil error became a full-blown catastrophe, and Crist gains a slight edge back to a four point advantage. Of course anything can happen between now and November, but Crist may very well ride this mishap into Washington.
Voters don't necessarily seek change in times of crisis. They want to someone familiar with the issues, the person they see leading the fight -- and that's what they're getting with Crist. While Rubio is focused on drumming up support around the Sunshine State, Crist has been hanging with President Obama, other state leaders and appearing on as many news shows as possible. The Governor is the go-to source for Florida-centric coverage of the Deepwater disaster, and that may be the best thing to happen to his campaign since -- well, since it started. If Crist can keep his face -- and managerial expertise -- in public view, this otherwise nightmarish situation may make his dreams come true.
Note: This piece originally appeared at Death and Taxes magazine.
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