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Charlie Crist's political gymnastics

By Felicia Sonmez

How will Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's (I) political maneuvering play out in the Sunshine State's Senate race?

Crist, who departed the Republican Party in April when polls indicated that he would lose in a primary against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R), has a long history of taking political positions that might best be described as "flexible."

The latest instance of that adaptability came Sunday, when Crist was asked by CNN's Ed Henry whether he would support a ban on same-sex marriage, as he did during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Crist's response:

"I feel the same way, yes, because I feel that marriage is a sacred institution, if you will. But I do believe in tolerance. I'm a live and let live kind of guy, and while I feel that way about marriage, I think if partners want to have the opportunity to live together, I don't have a problem with that."

Hours later, Crist's camp released a statement clarifying that he was referring to a statewide ban on same-sex marriage, not a federal one:

"I was not discussing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriage, which I do not support, but rather reaffirming my position regarding Florida's constitutional ban that I articulated while running for governor."

The shift came two days after Crist pivoted on another major issue, the national health care overhaul.

Crist told an Orlando TV station on Friday that he would have voted for health care reform. Later that day, his campaign clarified that he "misspoke" in his earlier comments and that he would have voted against the bill:

"If I misspoke, I want to be abundantly clear: the health care bill was too big, too expensive, and expanded the role of government far too much. Had I been in the United States Senate at the time, I would have voted against the bill because of unacceptable provisions like the cuts to the Medicare Advantage program. But being an independent, I have the freedom to be an honest broker for the people of Florida without regard for political party, and the reality is this: despite its serious flaws, the health care bill does have some positive aspects."

Crist's opponents in the three-way race, Rubio and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), have hammered him for his shifts on major issues, saying that it demonstrates that he's a desperate career politician who will do whatever it takes to win.

"The governor had an opportunity to beat Marco Rubio," Meek said in a separate interview with Henry on Sunday. "He decided to bail out at the last minute, right before qualifying and run as an independent."

Crist's camp has portrayed his changes on the issues as evidence of his leadership.

"The Governor believes in leadership, which means judging issues on the merits and the facts at the time. While this may be a foreign concept to our two hyper-partisan opponents, Charlie Crist will always make decisions based on what's best for the people of Florida, not what's best for the extreme wing of any political party. This is exactly why we need to rise above partisan politics and bring independent thinking to our nation's capital," said Crist press secretary Danny Kanner.

Rubio's camp contends otherwise. "It's not leadership," said Rubio spokesperson Alex Burgos. "It's political opportunism driven by Charlie Crist's burning desire to win and be important, not actually accomplish important things. Charlie Crist only cares about winning and will say anything and change any position just to win an election."

Charges of political opportunism can often prove devastating to a campaign. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) went down to defeat in his Senate primary against Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) largely because of a TV ad run by Sestak that featured Specter saying in his own words that "my change in party will enable me to be re-elected." (Specter had switched from Republican to Democrat after polls showed him facing a tough primary against former Rep. Pat Toomey (R).)

For Crist, though, recent polling paints a different picture. A Quinnipiac poll earlier this month shows Crist leading in the three-way race with 39 percent while Rubio wins 32 percent and Meek takes 16 percent.

Is it possible that Florida voters simply don't view Crist as a flip-flopper, despite his drastic shifts on the issues?

The Orlando Sentinel's Jim Stratton posits that Florida voters might just look at it as "just Charlie being Charlie." Writes Stratton:

If they don't expect him to hold firm on a policy issue, they're not devastated if he switches. They might not like it, but, so far, it hasn't alienated them enough to abandon Crist.

Recent polling backs that up. The Quinnipiac poll earlier this month showed Crist with sky-high favorability and approval ratings. Fifty-three percent of Floridians -- including 72 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents -- view Crist favorably while 33 percent view him unfavorably.

His current favorability rating is higher than it was in mid-April, shortly before he left the GOP. (The April poll showed him at 48 percent favorability -- his lowest ever, but still remarkably high for an incumbent governor in an economically distressed state.)

Rubio and Meek have lower favorability ratings (35 percent and 24 percent respectively), but one factor contributing to that is the fact that they remain unknown to many voters.

Fifty-six percent of Floridians approve of the job Crist is doing as governor while 35 percent disapprove. By contrast, 56 percent disapprove of the job the state Legislature is doing - its lowest rating ever.

Crist's high approval rating is due in part to a number of high profile vetoes in recent months, notably on two controversial bills on teacher tenure and abortion.

The numbers indicate that Florida voters are perhaps less confounded than others by Crist's shifts on the issues and his refusal to say which party he would caucus with in Congress.

The question for Crist is, how will "the people of Florida" respond once the campaign begins in earnest? The general election campaign is barely a week old -- and once Crist's rivals begin to hone in on his changing positions on the stump and on the airwaves, will they view him as a leader or as a victim of his own "political amnesia"?

By Felicia Sonmez  | August 30, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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