Good-time Charlie Crist is back.
He wants to be Florida’s governor again, and polls show he would beat Rick Scott if the election were held today.
Big deal. Richie Incognito would beat Scott if the election were held today.
The polls don’t mean much because Scott, although one of the most unpopular governors ever, is about to spend $100 million to get re-elected. Anybody who thinks Florida voters won’t get fooled again has been dipping into the bath salts.
Despite a stumbling first term, Scott’s prospects for 2014 are much better than they were in 2010.
Back then he was a political newcomer with zero charisma, zero credentials for public office and a ton of money. Today he’s a sitting governor with zero charisma, zero credentials for public office and even more money.
During the last campaign, Scott spent about $75 million of his own dough, having made a fortune presiding over a health care conglomerate that perpetrated one of the largest Medicare frauds since the beginning of Medicare.
In a sane and sensible place, that’s a résumé that would kill a person’s chances for high office. But not in Florida, the eternal land of suckers.
This time around, Scott will have the full backing of the Republican establishment, which basically shunned him in 2010, and a richer war chest for attacking Charlie Crist.
And Charlie definitely has weak spots.
He is relentlessly likeable, and oddly, that’s part of the problem. Crist so avidly wants to be liked by every human soul that his core policy beliefs are difficult to define.
This isn’t an uncommon trait in politicians, but during contentious and divided times voters yearn for candidates with a clear identity. For better or worse, Scott has made his priorities well known — the business community comes first, and everybody else is a distant second.
Crist has been criticized for being too politically ambitious — again, not a rare quirk among candidates. However, a case could be made that his impulsive ambitions changed the course of Florida, and not for the better.
The fact is, he made Rick Scott possible.
After one term as governor, Crist left Tallahassee to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Back then the economy in Florida was gasping, as it was nationwide, and Crist looked like he was walking away from a hard job at the worst time just to elevate his career.
His departure opened the door for Scott, who rolled to the governor’s mansion on a Tea Party upswell and an advertising blitz financed by his staggering personal bankroll.
Meanwhile, Crist, who was slipping in the polls, decided to drop out of the GOP Senate primary race and run as an independent against Marco Rubio. It was a cockeyed strategy that split the moderate vote, ensuring Crist’s own defeat as well as that of the Democratic candidate, Kendrick Meek.
No one in Florida was surprised last year when Crist switched his party affiliation to Democrat, or when he announced last week that he was running for governor again.
Scott wasted no time launching the first wave of attack ads against Crist portraying him as a flip-flopper, among other things.
Soon will come the inevitable replays of Crist, the then-Republican governor, hugging President Barack Obama during an event promoting the controversial federal stimulus package.
That brief embrace probably cost Crist the Senate race, and the moment was pure, impulsive Charlie. He probably didn’t think twice about hugging Obama because he’s a serial hugger. The man loves to be liked.
Never mind that the stimulus bill ended up helping pull the economy out of its death spiral. The Republicans want every race to be about Obama, so they’ll pound Crist again for standing on the same stage with the president.
If the health care mess isn’t fixed by next year, Crist might pay at the polls for his support of Obama. Or he might not.
Another GOP governor who openly consorted with the president just won a landslide re-election. Chris Christie, who praised Obama after Superstorm Sandy, beat a Democratic challenger in the Democratic-leaning state of New Jersey.
His win is a reminder that voters look for different qualities in their governors, and they’ll often cross party lines. That’s how Jeb Bush won two terms in Florida, and that’s how Crist got elected in 2006 — by lots of Democrats voting for a Republican.
That doesn’t mean they’ll vote for him next year just because he switched to their party. Being likeable gets you only so far. People want a governor who’s tough, caring and steady.
We ended up with Scott because Charlie left the job. He doesn’t get a free pass back to Tallahassee without some explaining.
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)
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