Monday, January 11, 2010

New York Times Magazine: The First Senator From the Tea Party?

January 10, 2010
The First Senator From the Tea Party?

Charlie Crist’s perma-tanned face bears none of the strain you would expect from the archetype of the embattled Republican. Politicians are supposed to keep up appearances, but Crist is especially convincing, one of the more earnest politicians you will see, whether or not he means it.

“Are you kidding? It would be an honor,” the governor of Florida tells a guy wearing a kilt who had asked for a photo.

“Thank you for coming to Pensacola, Governor,” a woman says.

“Call me Charlie,” he insists. “Please! Just call me Charlie. It would be an honor.”

Many things are an honor to Crist — if they are not a “pleasure” or a “privilege.” On a chilly-for-Florida Thursday night in early December, Crist was addressing the annual Lincoln Day Dinner for the local Republican Party in the northwestern outpost of Escambia County in the Florida Panhandle — nearly as close to Cincinnati as it is to Miami.

“God bless you here in the Panhandle, for your values,” Crist tells the crowd.

Crist, who is 53, is a compact and sunbaked raisin of a man with a shock of white hair, a beak nose and dark Mediterranean eyes. His grandfather, a Greek immigrant, shined shoes for $5 a day in Altoona, Pa., after leaving Cyprus at age 14; his father, a family doctor, shortened the last name from Christodoulos and settled in St. Petersburg when Charlie was 4. If the Crist family owned a Greek diner, Charlie would be the maître d’ who delivers you to your favorite table, asks about your mother and tells you to not miss the rice pudding.

The people of the Panhandle are “the greatest people I have ever met,” he says. He likes people, no doubt — “the people’s governor” is always reminding “people” how driven he is to help “the people” of Florida, in accordance with the “will of the people” who gave him “the pleasure, the privilege and the honor” to be their governor so he can “help the people.” As recently as last spring, Crist’s standing in Florida and with Republicans nationally was as golden as his skin. But these days not all of the people are happy with Charlie Crist. And a lot of them are in his party.

To many Republicans, the governor’s biggest sin was his support for the Obama administration’s $787 billion economic-stimulus package. That’s what comes up the most, although a fair number of conservatives also blame Crist for his seemingly decisive endorsement of John McCain three days before the Florida primary in the 2008 presidential campaign, effectively handing the state to an eventual nominee for whom many conservatives had little use. They see Crist’s career as pockmarked with instances of consensus-seeking, deal-making and bipartisanship — three particularly vulgar notions to a simmering Tea Party movement on the right. Conservatives have tagged Crist as being part of that pariah breed of Republican today: a “moderate.” Or worse.

“One of the most liberal politicians in the Republican firmament,” National Review said of him. Crist’s support for the stimulus bill came to embody what many on the right view as his RINO (Republican in name only) inclinations — in, among other areas, environmental policy, judicial appointments, spending and small-government orthodoxy. That critique has blared constantly as Crist navigates a treacherous Senate race that nine months ago looked like a beach stroll.

Crist wants to fill the seat vacated in September by Mel Martinez, also a Republican. His Democratic opponent in the fall would likely be Representative Kendrick Meek. But first Crist must survive a civil war: a Republican primary fight against Marco Rubio, the 38-year-old former speaker of the Florida House who has become a cause célèbre of the national conservative movement and drew even with Crist last month in a Rasmussen poll (after trailing the governor by almost 30 percentage points over the summer). Crist has become a conservative scourge, for reasons he seems at a loss to understand and that in some ways have nothing to do with him.

It is not uncommon for a party out of power to undergo an identity crisis and an internal bloodletting, and it is Crist’s bad luck that his race in 2010 fits the frame of a philosophical debate that has been fulminating in the Republican Party for several months. The race, and the national debate, pits the governing pragmatists against the ideological purists. The purists say that a Republican revival depends on hewing to conservative ideas, resisting compromise and generally taking a dim view of government. Tea Party rallies are filled with such purists, whose populist icons — Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News’s Glenn Beck — tend to be unburdened by the pressures of governing through a recession.

Not long ago, Jim DeMint, a Republican senator from South Carolina, summed up the purity side this way: “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.” And when I asked Rubio recently which current senator he most admires, he said DeMint.

Crist represents the governing pragmatist who was once seen as a winner who could reclaim the political center for Republicans. He was a popular governor with crossover appeal among Democrats and independents. For a time, Arnold Schwarzenegger fit this mold in California. So did, to a degree, Mitt Romney, when he was the governor of Massachusetts, and Mike Huckabee in Arkansas, though each worked to present himself as ideologically pure in his presidential run.

In recent decades, both parties have looked to governors with moderate appeal to deliver them from rough patches (see Bill Clinton for the Democrats in 1992 or George W. Bush for the Republicans in 2000). But especially when the economy goes south, governors can be sunk by their can-do bona fides and their executive distaste for ideological zeal. It is almost impossible to scour the record of a governor presiding in a weak economy without finding some nod to pragmatism.

Yet the presumed purity of Republican primary voters dictates that candidates emphasize their ideological fitness. “I am the true conservative in this race,” Crist has been doggedly reminding people. He says he is a pro-gun, anti-abortion, small-government conservative who worships Ronald Reagan. He says he is against gay marriage, frugal (he pays off his single credit card every month) and despised by criminals (he once proposed that chain gangs be reinstituted, earning him the nickname Chain Gang Charlie).

None of this has made Crist any less of a target to conservatives who view him as a coveted Florida marlin to reel in. (Or if you prefer hunting analogies, the prized RINO.) Nor has it thwarted Rubio’s growing conservative cachet. Rubio, who has been dominating straw polls of conservative advocates across Florida while pulling even in real ones, is Hispanic, uses Twitter and listens to Snoop Dogg — not your grandmother’s Republican, in other words.

“There are people who believe the way to be more successful as Republicans is to be more like Democrats,” Rubio told me early last month, essentially distilling his case against Crist, whom he keeps describing backhandedly as “a really nice, pleasant guy.” “And the people who believe we need to be more like Democrats will vote for Charlie Crist.” There is also the more stylistic question of whether Crist’s conciliatory approach fits with the basic tenor of an impatient opposition party. He may not be angry enough to win a Republican primary this year.

In November, on Veterans Day, I went to watch Crist at the swearing-in ceremony for Miami’s new mayor, Tomás Regalado. I found myself trapped outside an overcrowded City Hall in a sporadic downpour with a desperate crush of about 200 people — many of them well-dressed Hispanics claiming to be Regalado’s relatives. They kept pressing invitations into the face of a single beleaguered police officer who was guarding the front entrance (he kept saying no and blaming the fire marshal). Eventually everyone calmed down and settled for a closed-circuit TV feed of the ceremony.

“Let our beautiful city be a beacon of light,” an archbishop prayed to begin the ceremony. It felt more like a beacon of chaos. At one point I turned around and saw two people standing quietly in the parking lot holding up big placards of Crist’s face, captioned “Sellout.”

Protesters have been mocking Crist at Tea Party rallies across the state. His opponents play (and replay) video of “The Hug,” a killer clip from last February in which the governor, while introducing President Obama in Fort Myers, happened to engage in a quickie man-embrace with the new commander-in-chief on the podium (Stephen Colbert called the episode a “terrorist nipple bump”). Every time someone mentioned “The Hug,” I thought of “The Kiss” from Connecticut’s bitter 2006 Democratic Senate primary. Supporters of challenger Ned Lamont, who wound up defeating Senator Joe Lieberman, made great hay of a millisecond clip in which President Bush appeared to peck Lieberman’s right cheek after his 2005 State of the Union address. (Lieberman went on to win re-election as a third-party candidate but only after scores of “Kiss” buttons, signs and other memorabilia nourished the Connecticut economy.) When I mentioned “The Hug” to Crist, it was as close as I came to seeing him annoyed.

“Obviously some people focus on it,” Crist said as we rode in the back of his S.U.V. after a Veterans Day event in Pembroke Pines.

You can’t help wondering if Charlie Crist really needs this migraine, especially for a jump — from the governor’s office to the Senate — that could easily be viewed as lateral. Critics suggest that Crist wanted to be a senator because it looked like an easy victory and would give him more national exposure if he decided to run for president. Some friends admit to being slightly puzzled by why Crist, who is not seeking re-election as governor, would want to leave a high-prestige office that seems to suit him.

Crist is a master of the small gestures through which savvy governors accrue easy good will — say, changing the date of a special election in a heavily Jewish district of South Florida so it would not fall on Passover. He is animated in discussing how much he likes his current job. “Thanks to the people, I have this beautiful home in Tallahassee,” he says, placing his hand over his heart. “You know, there is a state jet and 24/7 protection, and all that goes away if I have the honor of getting elected to the U.S. Senate.”

Crist says he wants to be a senator because Washington has become the nation’s financial, as well as political, capital. It is the place where a public official can have the most influence. “It seems to me that we need a little bit of Florida common sense in Washington,” Crist says.

But is he not slightly regretful about quitting after one term? “Being governor is a great job, don’t misunderstand me,” says Crist, who recently beamed through a photo opportunity in which a 278-pound sea turtle named Margarita was returned to the sea after a lengthy stay at a turtle hospital in the Florida Keys. “I am honored to be the governor of Florida. It’s something I never would have dreamed would happen. I pinch myself every day.”

Of course, “Florida common sense” has never exactly caught on as a national selling point, at least not in politics. “Florida circus” is more like it, this swamp of Elián Gonzáles, Terri Schiavo, Mark Foley, Katherine Harris, William Kennedy Smith, confused Jews voting for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County, the National Enquirer (based here), Rush Limbaugh (lives here) and Tiger Woods (crashed here). The fourth-most-populous state has acquired an outsize cachet in the nation’s political mythology. It is also a hothouse for many issues of national urgency: health care is a chief concern for the state’s elderly population; tensions over immigration have boiled here for years; environmental fights have raged (over offshore drilling, global warming, the Everglades); and unemployment has jumped to its highest levels in more than three decades (11.5 percent).

Crist is hardly the only governor in the country whose fortunes have plummeted with the economy (Exhibit A for Arnold). But Florida has been particularly hard hit by the housing crisis. Almost half of the state’s mortgages are underwater, and foreclosure rates are among the nation’s highest. The state could be one bad hurricane away from a budgetary crisis on the order of California’s. Most striking, the state is losing population for the first time in more than 60 years. “And we’re starting to lose people to places where the weather and golf courses aren’t as good,” Rubio says.

Beyond Florida’s borders, the Crist-Rubio battle involves the fate of the Republican “big tent,” once championed by Ronald Reagan to promote an inclusive party open to a range of viewpoints. Crist is a “big-tent” guy. “If the party narrows the focus too much,” he told me, “there’s great risk in terms of not being successful in elections.”

This used to be a noncontroversial view in the party, and national Republican leaders like Michael Steele, the party chairman, and John Boehner, the House Republican leader, still say the “big tent” is good for the party’s health. But “big tent” has also become a point of some disdain among a segment of the right. “For a lot of people,” Mike Huckabee told me, “this race has become a real classic encounter between whether the party is going to be a let’s-be-all-things-to-all-people party or whether we’re going to be a principled conservative party that espouses things out of genuine conviction.” Huckabee recently said that the instinct to “accommodate every view” would “kill the conservative movement.” He is supporting Rubio.

The banquet crowd in Pensacola seemed safe for Crist: a roomful of 300 party stalwarts who appreciate the governor’s dutiful manner and his willingness to show up in rooms like this one, essentially in Alabama. The Lincoln Day Dinner evoked the familiar trappings of the Republican establishment: graying Caucasians, elephant ties and pictures of Reagan (at the Berlin Wall), Nixon (with Elvis) and the Bushes beckoning on the silent-auction table, next to the cash bar.

“This is an old-time crowd of loyal Republicans,” said one old-time Republican I met, Bill Spain, who says he has been involved in Escambia County politics “since the air was clean and sex was dirty” (about 45 years). He likes Crist because he is a gentleman and not one of those “in-your-face fundamentalists, like what you see on cable TV today.” Spain, who is 71 and works as a chiropractic-wellness physician in Pensacola, was standing near the buffet table, watching Crist pose for photos next to the Christmas tree.

“Charlie is a class act and a pro and a solid Republican,” Spain said. “And he is not one of these combative bomb-thrower types that seem to be taking over so much of what are in politics today, including here. This is no time for bomb-throwers and fundamentalists.”

In his brief remarks, Crist did a lot of thanking — the dinner organizers, the local electeds, the cop who led the Pledge of Allegiance, the priest who led “such a great prayer,” the folks in the kitchen and the valet parkers. His speech followed the Republican litany: taxes, big government and Obama are bad; guns, the military and “my veto pen” are good. He loves Israel, too — it is reflexive for Florida politicians to mention this — “because those who have been loyal to us around the world, we have to be loyal back to.” He could just as easily be reminding Republicans to be loyal to him. For all the ease with which Crist travels to such settings, there is also a plaintiveness, as if he knows the “bomb-throwers and fundamentalists” are out for him, and he is appealing for understanding from his friends.

A former president of his class at St. Petersburg High School and student-body vice president at Florida State University, Crist enjoyed a steady rise through Florida’s politics. After starting his career as a general counsel for the minor-league division of the baseball commissioner’s office, Crist served in the State Senate, as education commissioner and attorney general before becoming governor in 2007. He was against abortion rights (after favoring them years earlier), in favor of capital punishment and in good standing with gun owners. He touts himself as a fiscal conservative who vetoed more earmarks than any other governor in the history of his state.

But Crist’s reputation as a moderate flows in part from his willingness to break from his party on offshore drilling (which he opposed, until 2008) and his openness to notions like a “cap and trade” plan for the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. He has appointed judges whom many Republicans deem liberal, and his support for restoring voting rights to ex-felons is hardly a Republican hobbyhorse. He boasts of being a “life member” of the N.A.A.C.P., and one black legislator called Crist the state’s “first black governor.”

Crist was considered less conservative than his predecessor, Jeb Bush. (Rubio calls Bush his mentor, and while the former governor has stayed neutral in the race, both of his sons support Rubio.) For much of his term, Crist’s approval ratings sat in the 60 and 70 percent range. He was largely free of scandal, other than for having had to endure the dreaded “longtime bachelor” tag in politics. Crist, who was married for less than a year in his 20s, has been subjected to the requisite wink-wink about sexual preference that accompanies middle-aged bachelorhood in politics. It abated slightly after Crist got engaged in July 2008, around the time — wink-wink — that John McCain was considering him to be his running mate. Critics saw even this as a comical example of Crist’s willingness to do anything to further his career. NBC’s Chuck Todd joked on the air that Crist might call off his engagement if McCain did not pick him. (Crist married the former Carole Rome that December.)

His national potential was obvious, at least a year ago. He was an affable big-state governor with appeal to the nonideological suburbanites — many of them independents — who voted for Barack Obama. It appeared that a cooperative, consensus-seeking approach might define this political era, instead of just a few quaint weeks. But then came the bailouts, the stimulus bill, the hug, the health care bill, the tea parties, the August town-hall meetings and the still-faltering economy.

Florida became “a hill to die on for conservatives,” declared the blogger and right-wing activist Erick Erickson, of “This primary has become a lot more than just a Senate race in some ways,” Erickson told me. “There is a lot riding on Marco Rubio.”

Rubio, a self-styled “movement conservative” whose parents were exiled from Castro’s Cuba, is a great hope to a party that has suffered an exodus of Hispanic voters in recent elections. He made the cover of National Review, won the endorsement of the Club for Growth, a conservative imprimatur and A.T.M., and has drawn big love from George Will, Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, the Palm Beach resident. Sarah Palin has not spoken publicly about the race, but Rubio supporters who met her during book stops in Florida say she spoke glowingly of Rubio, and it would surprise no one if she endorsed him.

Crist has all along been the establishment candidate, whose blessings from entities like John McCain, the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, John Cornyn, are seen by many conservatives as proof that Crist is the same-old vintage of Republican from the party’s 2006 and 2008 debacles. “Conservatives don’t need to be served these cookie-cutter candidates like Charlie Crist,” the conservative blogger Michelle Malkin said in a speech to conservative women, which I attended last summer in Nashville. “Otherwise we’re just going to keep getting the same results.” The room exploded in applause. It was the first time I had heard of Marco Rubio. Everyone else in that room of hard-core activists seemed to know exactly who he was.

If Rubio defeats Crist on Aug. 24, conservatives will see the victory as a signal that Republicans should not compromise to try to appeal to moderates. “There was all this talk that conservatives couldn’t win in certain states, like Pennsylvania or Florida,” Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator, told me. “We had to go out and find middle-of-the-road Republicans who could bridge the gap between Republicans and independents. So when someone like Rubio came along, who is not milquetoast, not lukewarm, who very clearly is a conservative, an American, and independents flock to him, it sends a message.”

Democrats have welcomed these primary challenges as inevitably divisive. “The Tea Party movement is savaging the G.O.P.,” said Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in a speech in early December. This year’s Republican Senate primary challengers include Chuck DeVore, a California assemblyman who is opposing the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, and Pat Toomey, the former Club for Growth president whose bid for the Republican nomination in Pennsylvania led Senator Arlen Specter to become a Democrat (amid a chorus of “good riddance” from many conservatives).

None of these challengers have been more celebrated than Rubio. “If there is a face for the future of the Republican Party, it is Marco Rubio,” Huckabee told me. “He is our Barack Obama but with substance.” I went to see Rubio speak in mid-November at a country club in East Manatee, about an hour’s drive from Tampa, past a lot of strawlegged tropical birds and lawyer billboards. Near the front entrance was a Nissan Frontier pickup truck with a dictionary definition of “Congress” spread across the back window. “Congress (N),” the sign said, “a racketeer influenced and corrupt organization (RICO) whose sole purpose is to transfer the wealth of hard-working Americans to lazy bums and bureaucrats (oh, wait, that’s redundant).”

As I wrote this in my notebook, I was startled by a short guy with a stiff toupee who walked up behind me and accused me of taking down license-plate numbers — spying. I assured him that I was not and explained that I was a reporter (which only raised his suspicion) from The New York Times (and his contempt). I was here to watch Rubio speak, I said, and Toupee Guy grunted something about how it sure looked like I was taking down license-plate numbers, but whatever.

Rubio walked into the country club a few minutes later. He moves in purposeful bursts, like the former college football player he is. With a boyish mop of brown hair and a big grin, he resembles a barrel-chested version of George Stephanopoulos. He was greeted by Raul Fernandez, a supporter who wore a full ensemble of “Rubio for Senate” clothing, and by Dave Miner, a lawyer and education advocate, who assured Rubio that “probably about 100 percent of the people here support you.”

“What is this, one of those Saddam Hussein kind of deals?” Rubio said, laughing. He speaks fast, off the cuff and with great self-assurance, reminiscent of a not-yet-humbled dot-com entrepreneur from the late 1990s. He tells the story of his father, who emigrated from Cuba and worked 16-hour days into his 70s as a banquet bartender to support his wife and four children. “My father stood behind rollaway bars, just like this one, so I could stand behind this podium talking to you,” he said. His mother worked as a hotel maid and a stock clerk at Kmart.

Even when standing in one place, Rubio is a quivering bundle, his right leg shaking behind the lectern. He jackhammers his message about America’s exceptional status in the world. “This is the only society in history where your future is not determined by where you were born,” he said. “I believe that the United States of America is the greatest society in the history of humanity.” America is unique for its belief in limited government, he says, not because it is anointed. “Does God love us more than Belgium?” he asked. “No.”

While Crist’s stump speech includes a discussion of his record and his experience, Rubio speaks barely at all about his political résumé, even though it essentially began right after he graduated from the University of Miami Law School. He served as a city commissioner in West Miami before winning his first term in the Florida House of Representatives in 2000. He was sworn in as speaker in 2006, the youngest person and the first Hispanic to hold that position. The centerpiece of his speech is a sweeping homage to conservative principle. “We are not debating stimulus bills or tax codes,” he said. “We are debating the essence of what government should be and what role it should play.”

Rubio calls President Obama “the most articulate and talented teleprompter reader in America,” a line that drew big laughter and applause in East Manatee. But for the most part, Rubio’s rhetoric is not harsh or personal against the president — less so than I would have expected given his firebrand following. He acknowledges that Obama has access to White House intelligence that he does not, so it is hard for him to fully assess the president’s decisions on national security. And he praises Obama as someone who seems to “get it right” as a husband and a father. “These are the most important jobs he has, even more so than being president,” says Rubio, who is married to a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader with whom he has four children.

Rubio’s tenure as the Florida House speaker overlapped two years with Crist’s as governor. They got along well enough, both men say, and Rubio supported Crist for governor in 2006. But it is no mystery who Rubio is talking about when he says that “the biggest danger facing America today are politicians who will say or do anything to get elected, who treat elections like an athletic contest.”

After his speech, which drew a standing ovation, Rubio and I took over a table in the country-club bar. Rubio’s leg started immediately quivering under the table. He asked a waitress for coffee. “Decaf?” she asked.

“That’s like ordering O’Doul’s,” Rubio said. “What’s the use?”

Rubio played cornerback at a South Miami high school and briefly at Tarkio College in northwest Missouri before the school folded and he wound up at the University of Florida. He still plays flag football on weekends, and I tried to engage him in small talk about his beloved Dolphins, but his leg began bouncing again with impatience. “You gonna turn that on?” he said, looking at my tape recorder.

I asked Rubio if he was surprised at the national attention he was receiving. That day, he had learned that he would be the keynote speaker next month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual confab of the right in Washington. He sucked his teeth in an exaggerated grimace. “I’m not a fan of personality-based politics,” Rubio said. “Very third worldish.” People who pin their trust and faith in a person are bound to be disappointed, he said. “I’m just a messenger for a set of ideas.”

After Rubio left, I met, in the lingering crowd, a woman named Antoinette Parsons, who goes by Toni. She is a 78-year-old precinct representative from Bradenton who introduced herself as a “political activist and ballroom dancer.” She gave me her political card (she also has a card for ballroom dancing) and described Crist as “my dear friend for 15 years.”

“That is why it pains me to speak badly of Charlie,” she said. But she’s mad at him, for a lot of reasons — she mentions his last-minute endorsement of McCain in 2008. But mostly “the political winds are shifting, and this is not Charlie’s time.” She says she will vote for Rubio and thinks he will win. “People are energized,” she told me.

Parsons would drive two hours to Orlando that night to attend her first tea party. She purchased a special “Freedom is brewing” T-shirt online for the occasion. Several people at the Rubio lunch were going to be caravaning with her, including a van load of 13 people. “I’m so excited for this I can barely describe it,” said the van’s driver, Bryan Tupper, a 26-year-old unemployed actor from Bradenton. This is how young people must have sounded before they road-tripped to Woodstock, although tea parties tend not to attract the Country Joe and the Fish crowd. (Instead, Ron and Kay Rivoli, two beloved Tea Party entertainers, performed in Orlando — “Press One For English,” their video advocating for the English-only movement, has drawn more than 13 million views on YouTube.) There seem to be more tea parties in Florida than in other places, although there is no way of knowing this. The Orlando Sentinel reported that this particular gathering — at Lake Eola Park in November — was at least the fourth Tea Party rally to be held in Orlando in 2009.

“Tea Party” has become something of a catch-all term to describe an impassioned and empowered group of populist conservatives. They are largely antigovernment, a lot of them are self-described libertarians, and many say they are new to political activism. It is easy to think of them as a singular entity and a growing one. “There is a new sheriff in town in American politics, and that is the Tea Party people,” said Lloyd Marcus, a musician from Deltona, Fla., who performs his “American Tea Party Anthem” at the events.

But in fact, there are many Tea Party groups across the country that exist under a variety of umbrellas, with different agendas and aims (Tea Party Nation, Some are organized into formal political-action committees; others are little more than a ragtag of protesters. It is not clear whether these Tea Party amalgams will ever grow into a functional and cohesive political movement that can actually get candidates elected to office. Fred O’Neal, an Orlando lawyer, recently registered an official Tea Party with Florida’s Secretary of State. “We are not the placard-waving, funny-hat-wearing people,” said O’Neal, an election law specialist who says he was an “Ed Muskie Democrat” in his college days. “We are willing to do the political dirty work.”

What’s evident is that a lot of Tea Party participants feel no special allegiance to the Republican Party or its candidates. In a recent national survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports, a generic Tea Party candidate outpolled a generic Republican, 23 percent to 18 percent (the generic Democrat drew 36 percent, and another 22 percent were undecided). O’Neal says he plans to recruit candidates to run for office against both Democrats and Republicans. “Glenn Beck would be the ideal leader for our group,” O’Neal says, referring to the Fox host and — according to a sign at the tea party in Orlando — someone who should be president.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 people filled the park, spilling onto adjacent sidewalks. From an amphitheater stage, speakers called Obama a socialist (roughly once every minute), said “we want our country back” and maintained that Democrats resent hard work — which is why they all live on “government handouts.” They evoked a mood somewhere between exuberance and anger, the latter of which was best displayed when confronted by dissent.

I watched a group of protesters surround and heckle Hannah Jones, an 18-year-old community-college student from Orlando, who was standing in the middle of the crowd holding an “I hate tea” sign. “I would compare it to fifth-grade bullying,” Jones told me in a phone conversation afterward. She said that an event organizer, accompanied by two security guards, told her that if she did not leave he would call the police. “I just left,” Jones said. “I had every right to be there, but I didn’t want any trouble.”

Nearby I met Dustin Branch, a 21-year-old African-American wearing an Obama T-shirt. He said someone had just walked up to him and threatened to find out where he lives and teach him a lesson. “I’ve had people call me the N-word, people saying I’m un-American, that I’m disrespecting veterans and that I’m a racist,” said Branch, of Auburndale, Fla.

But for the most part, the gathering was peaceful and festive, comprising a diverse mishmash of conservative causes and resentments. The so-called Birthers were represented (“Show us the birth certificate, Mr. President”). I also saw a pro-flat-tax demonstrator, a woman holding a sign equating vaccines with poison, a woman angry about fees at the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, another furious about Washington’s “War on Christianity,” someone handing out “Cheney 2012” leaflets and a small group protesting the local Democratic congressman, Alan Grayson, by distributing bumper stickers.

Other than a contempt for the president — portrayed in signs as, among other things, a racist, a communist, a Nazi, a Muslim and someone who should “Go back to Kenya” — the most palpable resentment here for any individual was for Crist (“Obama’s BFF,” said one sign under a photo of “The Hug”). And after Palin, Rubio was the unmistakable angel of this crowd. I spotted several Rubio stickers and signs (and none for Crist). “Marco Rubio is the future of the conservative movement in this state, if not this country,” said Eileen Blackmer, a patient advocate who drove two hours from St. Petersburg. She wore a hat with six Lipton tea bags dangling from the rim and an “Ask me about Marco Rubio” sticker.

“Charlie Crist’s time has passed,” Blackmer said. “And Rubio’s support is strong and growing and committed.” She noted that Florida’s August primary will be “closed,” meaning that independents and Democrats who like Crist will not be able to vote. “Rubio’s support is hard core,” she went on to say, positing herself as an example. Blackmer will walk door to door and work booths and do anything she can to help a campaign that remains a skeletal operation with only six staff members across the state. “I don’t need to be paid, either,” she said. “We’re not Acorn.”

The so-called Republican establishment is under great duress, if not siege. “I do believe that our party has people trying to pull it in different directions,” says Jim Greer, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party. I spoke to him before the Republican dinner in Pensacola. He was sitting in a holding room before Crist arrived.

After he was elected governor in 2006, Crist picked Greer to be chairman of the party; Greer in turn says he supports Crist. “We cannot be a party that is angry,” Greer told me, sounding somewhat like a harassed substitute teacher getting pelted with spitballs from every direction. “We can’t be a party that doesn’t provide leadership and solutions to the challenges.”

Greer is the face of the Republican establishment in Florida — and it is not a calm face. He has bulged eyes and reddened cheeks. Greer kept describing his predicament as “challenging” — the go-to word these days for any public person loath to admit troublesome circumstances but who is clearly enduring them.

“I think there is a lack of understanding of what elected leaders are faced with when it comes to decision-making,” Greer said, addressing the criticism Crist has received from conservatives. “But at the end of the day, I think it’s just all-around frustration with some in our party who have a very pure philosophy of how you should govern. People want a common-sense approach to governing. And approaching it with purity won’t get anything done.” (On Jan. 5, Greer announced that he would resign as party chairman in February.)

Greer says he is convinced that Republicans will come together after the primary and support the nominee. Crist and Rubio have said they would support each other against Kendrick Meek, and there is no viable third-party candidate on the Florida horizon. Fred O’Neal, of the formal Florida Tea Party, told me that even if his group nominated its own candidate, it would ask him to quit if it appeared that he were helping Meek.

Yet there was a telling moment at the Pensacola dinner when Greer, following Crist on the program, put in his plug for party unity. “The opposition is not in our party,” Greer told the thinning crowd. “It’s the Democrats.” Someone applauded, and Greer thanked him. “At least one person agrees,” he said.

Bob Smith, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire who moved to Sarasota in 2003, is critical of Greer for favoring Crist in the primary: “There is clearly a war going on in the Republican Party.” Smith is a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran who jumped into this war himself recently by entering the Senate primary. “The sooner the party’s leadership recognizes that,” he added, “the better off they’ll be.” There are moderates and conservatives who will operate inside the party, he maintained, and a group of conservatives who operate independently of it — “the Tea Party folks,” he said.

Smith went on, “I’m intent on showing people that I am the only one in this race with real-world experience and Senate experience.” In his two terms — from 1990 to 2002 — Smith gained a reputation as a bit of an odd duck. He briefly declared himself an independent in 1999, and he also briefly endorsed John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 after charging that George W. Bush and his political guru Karl Rove “broke their word” to him by supporting his opponent in the 2002 Republican primary, John Sununu. (Smith later retracted the Kerry endorsement.)

Smith is a major long shot to win the primary. He has been invisible in polls and has raised little money. But he could have an impact on the race, more likely to the detriment of Rubio by siphoning off anti-Crist voters. Smith is especially critical of Rubio, mentioning that Rubio spent public money getting his office renovated and also supported a publicly financed project that included the installation of artificial turf on a field where he happened to play flag football. Clearly Rubio wants no part of him — he backed out of a scheduled forum in October in which he would have shared a stage with Smith (Crist was not there).

“Who?” Rubio said with a straight face when I asked him about Smith. He actually seemed startled by the question.

By contrast, Crist has started referring to “my opponents.”

One of Crist’s gifts as a politician is that he gives exceedingly disciplined interviews — also known as bland ones. He stays strenuously on message, refrains from asides and is big on platitudes. He is friendly and solicitous, to be sure — always good about punctuating sentences with the name of the person he is addressing. “You want some food, Mark?” he asked me in November as he surveyed the cafeteria food at a nursing home for veterans in South Florida. “There is some supremely good chow here,” he said. (“I love peas!” he boomed a few seconds later to a cafeteria worker.)

We repaired to a small library, next to the chapel. Crist wore a crisp navy suit and sipped from a can of Red Bull Sugarfree. A few days earlier, Bill Owens, a Democrat, had won a surprise victory in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, a nationally resonant contest in which the Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, was deemed too moderate by a large number of conservatives (including national figures like Palin), who instead rallied to a third-party purist, the Conservative Party nominee, Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava dropped out a few days before the election.

I asked Crist what lesson he took from the New York race. “The Democrat won,” he said. “It is the first time in over 100 years that a Republican has not represented that district. Beyond that, I don’t know how much to take from it.”

Here is how Rubio answered the same question: “The only lesson,” he told me, “is that there is an active and organized conservative movement in America that is willing to take on the Republican establishment.”

Both Rubio and Crist say that the Florida race would not be analogous to New York unless a third-party candidate ran in the general election. Even so, the purity-versus-pragmatism dynamic is at the root of the Florida race, as it was in New York. Crist says that being “in the arena” imposes a pragmatism on any elected leader. He mentioned his support for the stimulus bill. “There is a significant difference between being a legislator and being the C.E.O. of a state,” he said. “You have a duty to the people.” Crist points out that stimulus funds allowed 20,000 teachers in Florida to keep their jobs. “I could have made a political statement and said, ‘Well, too bad for you, teachers, I’m not going to take that money.’ Well come on, I don’t know what kind of a cold heart is able to do that. But I don’t have a cold heart in my chest.”

And while the photos of Crist hugging Obama might look bad (“I nearly lost my lunch,” Huckabee told me), Crist said the hug was the “civil and respectful” thing to do. It was Obama’s first visit to Florida as president. “It’s how I was raised,” he said. “It’s the president of the United States. And I don’t apologize for it.” When Obama visited Jacksonville in October, the governor stayed away and said he did not know about the visit — a claim later contradicted by e-mail messages obtained by The St. Petersburg Times.

When I returned to Florida a few weeks later, Crist was enduring a series of small nicks. Scott Rothstein, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who is one of Crist’s friends and donors, had been arrested on federal charges of operating a $1.2 billion dollar Ponzi scheme. A few days before I arrived, it was reported that callers to Florida’s KidCare hot line were being mistakenly redirected to a sex-chat line (“Hey there, sexy guy”). I mentioned this to Crist — in the vein of, “Governor, you can’t buy a break” — and he winced.

“It’s all right,” he said, taking a deep breath. “It will work out.”

Rubio’s celebrity had continued to grow. I saw him get a raucous standing ovation after he spoke to Florida Tax Watch, a taxpayers-advocacy group, at the Breakers resort in Palm Beach. “I see myself as the warm-up act to the Rolling Stones,” said Florida’s senate president, Jeff Atwater, who came on right before Rubio.

Crist taped a video message to the group, but the sound system in the Ponce de Leon Ballroom kept coming on prematurely. “I’m Charlie Crist,” the deep, disjointed voice of the governor stuttered a few times over the loudspeaker during one of the other speeches. (My first thought was that this was some sort of prank, but it apparently was not.)

As the race has tightened, Crist has attacked Rubio’s conservative credentials on the environment, taxes and immigration, in a daily flurry of press releases. “We are fully engaged now,” says Eric Eikenberg, Crist’s former chief of staff who recently took over the campaign.

Campaigns are ultimately decided by the practical and the tangible — fund raising, organizing, votes. Crist has a large advantage in statewide organization and name recognition, even as he has suffered a free fall in polls in November and December. He raised nearly $8 million in the first three quarters of 2009, compared to $1.6 million for Rubio. It’s also worth noting that grass-roots excitement and news-media attention do not automatically translate into a functional political organization — a lesson many candidates have learned, most spectacularly Howard Dean in Iowa in 2004.

In December, I went to visit Crist at the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee on a Friday morning after leaving Pensacola at 5:30 a.m., stopping for breakfast at a Waffle House, passing a massive “Pray for America” billboard on I-10 and seeing my first Crist bumper sticker of the week — in the town of Bagdad, Fla. Crist greeted me downstairs near the front entrance, smelling of cologne and looking morning fresh after his daily swim in a heated outdoor pool. He sat on a couch in the den and asked his personal assistant if she could adjust the overhead fan.

“That’s a great question,” Crist said after I asked him when it became toxic for Republicans to admit to being moderates. (Crist says everything is “a great question.”) As if to underscore this toxicity, Crist bobbed his way through a sequence of questions about whether in fact there should be a place for moderates in the Republican Party.

“I hope there’s room for a lot of people in the Republican Party,” he told me.

“Yes, but what about moderates?” I said.

“Uh, that’s up for the people to decide,” he said.

There are scores of quiet and loyal Republicans who are turning out for his events, Crist said. In the end, he believes that his supporters will greatly outnumber (if not outshout) his detractors. The straw polls he is losing have very few participants anyway, he says — when you put them all together, maybe a total of 1,000 votes. “In a state like Florida, with almost 20 million people, that’s not that much,” he said — a statement that Al Gore might not agree with.

Crist told me that two of the senators he most admires are John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have reputations for forging bipartisan alliances — and who have drawn their share of hellfire from conservative purists. He also mentioned John Thune, the mild-mannered South Dakotan with a tan almost as impressive as his own (Crist claims no artificial help, by the way). He would model himself in the Senate after his mentor, Connie Mack, the former Republican senator from Florida for whom he once worked. “This is a guy who is as principled as anyone I have ever met,” Crist told me. “And at the same time he was civil in how he comported himself.”

Crist said he has not attended any tea parties and that he is not concerned about the hostility his name elicits at them. “I have a job to do,” he said. “When I was elected governor, my job was to look out for the people of Florida, and that’s what I’m doing. When you’re in the cheap seats, it’s easy to take political shots.”

I asked Crist if his Tea Party critics are in “the cheap seats.”

No, he said. He meant his opponents.

Mark Leibovich is a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Times. He last wrote for the magazine about the California governor’s race.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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