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For Charlie Crist, Pinellas has become his firewall

in Peter/Statewide by

Assuming that preliminary reports of Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio’s fundraising are accurate, and that Crist raised another $1.5 million or so and Rubio doubled his previous effort of $340K, the epic struggle for the Republican nomination will carry on into the spring, when Rubio and his supporters in the Legislature will bog down Crist in a disastrous legislative session.

Marco Rubio is not turning out to be like Tom Gallagher, who Crist knocked-out early with superior fundraising. Rubio is living off the land, so to speak, running an insurgent’s campaign that cannot be beat through traditional methods.

The cornerstone of Rubio’s insurgency is not the glowing media profiles he has received from conservative writers, like this one from George Will or this cover story from National Review. Nor is it a well-organized grassroots campaign or some sort of new media phenomenon. In fact, Rubio is only beginning to build his network of volunteers and while Crist has ceded the new media arena to Rubio, the latter has yet to fully leverage this advantage.

No, what is fueling Rubio’s insurgency, beyond just sheer force of personality (which may be the greatest factor) has been Rubio’s ability to win a series of straw polls among Republican activists at their party meetings. With each win comes a subsequent news story about Rubio winning, which only helps him to another win. And so on.

Here are the votes taken so far: Marion County GOP, Rubio 40, Crist 8, abstain 4; Hernando County GOP, Rubio 46, Crist 0; Gilchrist County GOP, Rubio 11, Crist 1; Republican Women’s Club of Duval Federated, Rubio 65, Crist 4; Northwest Orange Republican Women Federated, Rubio 49, Crist 3; Jefferson County GOP, Rubio 30, Crist 6; Highlands County GOP, Rubio 75, Crist 1; Pasco County GOP, Rubio 73, Crist 9; Lee County GOP, Rubio 60, Crist 9; Florida Federation of College Republicans, Rubio 19, Crist 6; Bay County GOP, Rubio 23, Crist 2.

Crist has never been embraced by the conservative wing of the GOP and this faction is relishing its ability to embarrass him. I’m sure some of those voting in the straw poll are getting caught up in the moment and voting against Crist as much as they are voting for Rubio.

But what is really happening here is Rubio has embraced a counter-intuitive strategy similar to how Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton. Instead of ignoring the caucuses and focusing on the primaries, Obama said, “Hey, let’s pay attention to the caucuses!” and, suddenly, the caucuses were important, which forced Clinton and the media to pay attention to them, which drew Clinton’s resources into battles she should not have been fighting.

Of course statewide caucuses are, by definition, more important than straw ballots, yet Rubio is convincing the media to pay attention to the polls, which is forcing Crist to pay attention to them, which will force Crist to pour his resources into them…

Which leads us to Pinellas. Rubio’s operatives in Pinellas, such as the gregarious Tony DiMatteo, have lured Crist into an obvious trap by scheduling a straw ballot. Crist’s young staff, no longer managed by George LeMieux, is convinced that Crist can win the Pinellas straw ballot.

But what happens if Crist loses?

An unscientific poll of 24 members of the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee reveals that Rubio’s support in Crist’s home county is as strong here as it has been in other counties. 16 of the 24 members said they were voting for or leaning to Rubio, while 6 said they were voting for or leaning to Crist. 2 respondents said they were truly undecided.

Pinellas ia Crist’s firewall and not in the Hillary Clinton sense of the word. The Pinellas straw ballot has to go for Crist or this race becomes a ten-point contest at best with a disastrous legislative session looming for Crist. If Crist gets bogged down in Tallahassee, the race could be down to single-digits by May.

The national conservative media would turn a Crist loss into a clarion call that David can, in fact, beat Goliath. Remember it was the PCREC’s endorsement that was the lynchpin of Crist’s victory over Gallagher. It was DiMatteo, then chair of the PCREC, who engineered the county’s support for Crist (along with a contribution for $50,000) and walled-off Tampa Bay from Gallagher’s campaign.

Crist’s supporters are hoping that the straw ballot can be put off until January, but my sources inside the PCREC say that Rubio’s backers will call for a vote at the December meeting come hell or high water.

So the question remains, can Crist win Pinellas?

Since Crist was elected, he has alienated DiMatteo and many other local Republicans irked by Crist’s questionable appointments, such as the time when Crist selected Democrat Jack Hellinger over loyal Republican and straight-shooter Tommy Minkoff (who, as it happens, is currently a finalist for an open seat and whose appointment would go a long way to soothing some of the bad feelings felt among local activists). Crist did do right by JJ Beyrouti, appointing him to the Pinellas County Housing Authority, but that is only a start.

If Crist doesn’t make winning Pinellas a priority with some timely appointments and an aggressive outreach program to the voting members of the PCREC, Crist’s firewall could melt away, just like Clinton’s melted away last year.

Update: Maybe Charlie is reading this blog: yesterday he appointed Tommy Minkoff to the 6th Judicial Circuit.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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