The Gloves Come Off In Florida GOP Senate Primary

The Florida Republican Senate primary race is already a knock-down, drag-out fight — and it’s still six months before the primary itself. This week’s new development — with the news of leaked documents showing that Marco Rubio charged more than $100,000 to the state GOP’s credit card when he was speaker of the state House, some of it on potentially personal expenses — is just the latest example.

Gov. Charlie Crist, Rubio’s opponent, denied that he was in any way connected to the leak — and at the same time seemed to be ridiculing Rubio as too soft to take a political attack or withstand any scrutiny. “I don’t know where it came from,” Crist said. “It doesn’t really matter to me. What matters to me is that the people have a right to know how people spend their money, how they comport themselves, how they conduct themselves before they put themselves up for public office. That’s happened to the speaker. He apparently doesn’t like it. That’s too bad. Welcome to the NFL.”I asked Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant in Florida, how dirty and personal he thinks the campaign could get, with six months still left to go in the primary. “I expect a scorched earth, smoking, radioactive wasteland, a postapocalypic Mad Max hellscape. That’s what I expect,” Wilson said with a laugh. “It’s a big job in the third largest state. Stakes are high.”

Wilson doesn’t think the story will help Crist. “There are two large competing narratives right now in this race. And one narrative is Charlie Crist is seen by many Republicans, and if you look at any of the survey information coming out of Florida by rather substantial numbers these days, as having embraced Barack Obama’s stimulus program both figuratively and having literally embraced Barack Obama, and he represents a direction in the Republican party that nobody else is moving,” said Wilson. “Everybody else is moving significantly to the right on fiscal matters and is strongly rejecting the Obama economic model. And that’s where the strength that has lifted Marco Rubio politically has come from. It’s not just the Tea Party movement, it’s that Republicans and independents who have come back to the Republican party have done so because they strongly object to the Obama economic model.

“The second narrative is the insider narrative,” Wilson continued. “Let’s throw all our dirty laundry out there, let’s play the Tallahassee game of, ‘I’ve got the paperwork,’ and try to take a $100,000 AmEx bill over two years and turn it into a scandal. You know when you spend $100,000 to raise $12 million, most people look at that as a good R.O.I. [return on investment].”

In summary, Wilson said: “There’s a big narrative and a little narrative. The Crist campaign is trying to fight the little narrative.”

(Wilson said he is not doing any work or receiving pay from any of the candidates.)

Rubio has made Crist’s support of the Obama administration’s stimulus the centerpiece of his campaign. Just two weeks ago he held a moneybomb fundraiser to coincide with one-year anniversary of a rally that Crist held with President Obama, to call for passage of the bill as it was working its way through Congress. The Web page set up to conduct the fundraising event featured a picture of Obama and Crist about to hug during the rally.

When the credit-card documents came out, Rubio accused Crist’s allies of being behind it — specifically former state GOP chairman Jim Greer, who resigned from the chairmanship in January. Greer has denied the accusation. Meanwhile, the Crist campaign said Rubio was responsible for continued rumors that Crist might leave the Republican Party and run as an independent, a charge that the Crist campaign strongly denies.

“This isn’t playing softball at the county park, this is the big leagues. Both sides are gonna need to prepare themselves for the bomb-throwing,” said a county GOP chairman who is not officially supporting any candidate. “And the person who is able to sidestep those land mines and still get his message out, and prove to the taxpayers and the people who are voting them into office that they are going to be good stewards of their money and their ideology, is the one who is going to win.”

The county chairman also expected the numbers to change, as the attacks keep on going. “Look the dynamics of this campaign have changed. When Charlie Crist was up 30 points, Marco Rubio was on the offensive, and he was attacking Charlie’s policies, and the hug,” said the chairman, also adding: “But now the roles have flipped. Now Charlie has the opportunity 18 points down to be on the offensive. Marco is on defense, and I fully expect the margin to narrow again.”

I asked Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos for comment on Crist’s “Welcome to the NFL” jibe. “Charlie Crist is desperate, badly trailing in the polls, and continues to suffer from his ‘unforgivable’ support of the failed stimulus,” said Burgos, quoting former Gov. Jeb Bush’s term for Crist’s support of the stimulus. “By leaking these documents and gloating about it, Charlie Crist and his team have proven that he places his political ambitions above all else. While Charlie Crist and his hand-picked state party team’s lavish spending nearly destroyed the organization, Marco Rubio responsibly promoted the party and made sure party money was only spent on appropriate political expenditures.”

Are they prepared, I asked, to deal with a long campaign where the numbers could switch around, as that county chairman predicted? “Our campaign all along has operated strictly from the underdog mentality,” said Burgos. “This is still a sitting governor we’re up against, who’s got a vast war chest. This is his fifth statewide campaign, and so there are a lot of advantages that he has always had in this race and continues to have. So we have always operated from the standpoint of being the underdog.”

The Crist campaign could not be reached for comment.