Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is playing with fire with the new strategy, which takes direct aim at the conservatives who have been calling Crist out since the summer. Democrats and the Republicans trying to defeat him say he's going to get burned. But Crist's new rhetoric might be just what it takes for him to be the phoenix in the race.
After trying to first ignore Rubio and then later appease Rubio's supporters by backing off his past support for President Obama's economic stimulus, Crist has now turned to face his conservative opponents head on, claiming they're the problem with the Republican Party, not him.
From the St. Petersburg Times today:
"People are hurting and they're suffering. I hear about it every day. That's frankly why I thought the stimulus was so important,'' Crist said. "I know there are some in my party that don't agree with that, but I don't have the luxury of putting politics over people."
Crist says his record is a conservative one, and he dismisses Rubio's supporters as extremists -- in the Times interview, he pointed out that a recent DailyKos poll showed that birthers are more likely to support Rubio than him.
The national groups supporting Rubio are happy to have that fight.
"We don't care whether someone's pro gun, pro-life or pro whatever else [Crist] said," Club For Growth executive director David Keating told TPMDC. The group recently launched a series of anti-Crist TV ads and has endorsed Rubio.
Keating didn't engage Crist on his claims that Rubio's supporters were just a bunch of angry birthers. But he said it was clear to him who represented the majority of the GOP.
"Charlie Crist is not in the Republican mainstream on economic and fiscal issues," he said. "He's clearly not. You don't go and give an enthusiastic endorsement of the stimulus bill with the president, when by all reasonable reviews of it is one of the worst spending bills ever written by congress."
There's another group happy to see Crist engage Rubio's supporters head-on: supporters of Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee. The Meek campaign has been waiting patiently for Crist to battle Rubio over conservative bona fides, a battle which they say will alienate the independents and conservative Democrats that have backed Crist and in the past.
"Crist can't outflank Rubio," a Meek campaign official told TPMDC last week. "But as [Crist] creeps over to the right, it will open up a lot of territory for Meek."
But Crist has turned that dynamic on its head with his new strategy. While his attacks on Rubio's conservative backers are sure to fire them up even more than they already are, Crist is hoping his confrontational approach will force Rubio into uncomfortable discussions about Obama's citizenship and other right-wing rhetoric. He really had nowhere else to go -- Crist's record doesn't allow him to make a serious run at changing the minds of Rubio's supporters, so he has to run with the moderate message that has been successful in the past.
But if it works, Crist will have shown that moderates like him can beat back a conservative groundswell by directly confronting it. If it doesn't, Crist will have invited even more of the right wing attacks that threaten to defeat him.