Florida voters knew Republican Governor Charlie Crist would go on the attack sooner or later this year to try to salvage his floundering campaign for the U.S. Senate. But they surely had no idea that his rival’s grooming habits would become an issue. Last week on Fox News, Crist blasted his surging opponent in the August Republican primary election, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, for having used a GOP-issued American Express card for personal purchases, including $133.75 spent at a deluxe Miami barber shop. Rubio is “trying to pawn himself off as a fiscal conservative,” Crist said. “And yet he had a Republican Party of Florida credit card [and] he charged $130 for a haircut, or maybe it was a back wax. We are not sure what all he got at that place.”
The subject notwithstanding, it was the kind of spirited swipe Crist backers had been waiting to hear. But it doesn’t seem to be doing much damage to Rubio’s surprising, and widening, lead in the polls. Before the relatively unknown, 38-year-old Rubio became the darling of angry conservatives last summer, the race for the Florida Senate seat — one of the most important up for grabs in 2010, given the Sunshine State’s bellwether status — looked like a walk on the beach for Crist, who led some polls by almost 30 points. Since then, Crist’s bipartisan style, including his embrace of President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan, and his performance as recession-racked Florida’s chief executive, have come under withering assault from GOP loyalists. Rubio tops most surveys now by double digits; and in one released last month by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizzio, he leads Crist 52%-27% among self-identified Florida conservatives.
Even national Republican leaders who tripped over each other last year to endorse Crist, a Governor who until recently enjoyed approval ratings as high as 70%, are backing off. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the GOP’s Senate campaign committee, said last week that while he’s not dropping his endorsement altogether, he regrets having jumped to anoint Crist so soon — back when the Governor “seemed like the ideal candidate.”
That kind of buyer’s remorse has Florida conservatives crowing. “The entire Crist operation appears to be in a death spiral,” says GOP consultant Brett Doster, an ally of Crist’s conservative predecessor, Jeb Bush, whose fans say Crist’s centrist agenda has betrayed Bush’s legacy. “It’s hard to imagine at this point what he could possibly do to reverse this.” And it will be even harder if Bush decides, as many think he’ll do after the current Florida legislative session ends in May, to endorse Rubio. “Jeb,” Doster adds, “is the 800-pound gorilla in the room right now.” To continue reading, click here.