Rick Baker: Run, Charlie Crist, run!

The last two months have been rather gloomy times for term-limited St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. First, it was the news that Alex Sink would not run for the U.S Senate, thereby keeping her CFO position to herself. Then it was Bill McCollum passing on a Senate bid to stay on as Attorney General. All the while, every city council member since Connie Kone served stopped by City Hall to measure the drapes in your office.

For Hizzoner, it’s like what any bartender will tell you at closing time, ‘You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.’ Fortunately for Baker, Charlie Crist may be ready to throw you an after-party.

With all of Tallahassee buzzing that Charlie Crist will announce in May his decision to run for the U.S. Senate, word around St. Pete is that Rick Baker is considering a run for governor. If Rick Baker does run, he could very well win his party’s nomination.

Sounds like I’m back to my gambin’ days at Derby Lane? Not when you really think about it. Actually, Baker running for governor makes sense. But before he can, Charlie Crist has one hell of a decision in front of him

I don’t know how much money the National Republican Senatorial Committee has, but they pretty much need to promise all of it to Crist in order to get him to run. If the GOP is ever going to mount a national comeback, it begins with a win in Florida. The Republicans won’t even be able to call themselves a regional party if they lose this race. And without Crist running, they will lose.

Crist is an outright game changer. He has the highest approval ratings of any politician who didn’t just get back from winning a war. And that’s not going to change. Skeptics having been waiting for fifteen years for the balloon to pop – and it still hasn’t. Florida is on the brink of a statewide depression and Charlie is at 70% favorable.

And now Charlie is really starting to develop a national profile. The contrast between Bobby Jindal and Charlie Crist on Meet the Press could not have been clearer, despite their mutual swarthiness. Jindal is Newt Gingrich if Gingrich’s parents had been born in Punjab. Show-stopping smart, indeed, but not the national figure who can lead a movement. On the other hand, Crist is nothing less than Reaganesque.

But as Rick Baker likes to say, enough about Charlie Crist.

If Crist does run for the U.S. Senate, why shouldn’t Rick Baker run to succeed him? On several points, a Baker candidacy makes sense:

Rick Baker has a great record. Unlike 99% of Republicans who have held office recently, Baker can lay claim to a record that is attractive to not only his own party, but to Democrats and Independent as well. As mayor of St. Petersburg, he has led the city through a renaissance. He can take the ‘St. Pete Story’ across the state as an example of how Republicans can and should govern. Rick Baker might not be the proverbial Third Way, but his pragmatic conservatism is a blueprint for future Republican success.

Rick Baker should have Crist’s support. Even though they have different political consultants, both Charlie and Rick have the same basic message: “It’s a Great Day in (fill in the blank).” They’re both optimists from the same wing of the Republican Party. They have dozens of mutual friends and fundraisers (imagine how busy the Semblers will be if they both run). Most importantly, Rick Baker is not Marco Rubio, a protégé of Jeb Bush. The 2010 Republican primary for governor will be a proxy battle between Bush and Crist, but only if the latter has a stake in the fight.

Rick Baker is from the Land of Voter Gold, i.e., the I-4 Corridor. There was a time when every major election in Florida was not decided by a swath of voters living in west central Florida. But as any poli-sci professor at USF or UCF will tell you – and they’ve all made careers out of the region’s political importance – whoever wins the I-4 Corridor wins Florida. Baker has a natural home field advantage.

Of course, Rick Baker faces several obstacles to winning the nomination, and then the Governor’s Mansion. He doesn’t have a statewide profile. He may not be red-meat conservative enough for the Dittoheads that still control the GOP. And, more important, he has to make the transition from small-ball municipal politics to a big-league run for the U.S. Senate.

But just the fact that he has political options again has to be encouraging to Rick Baker. Lame-duck bored isn’t a good look for him. So, Mr. Mayor, stand in front of the mirror and start practicing, “It’s a great day in the city, err, I mean, the state of Florida.”

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