Florida may be known for some time as the quintessential swing state. But this year, the Sunshine State's marquee race is between two Republicans -- Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio, the state's former Speaker of the House.
When incumbent Sen. Mel Martinez, also a Republican, announced his resignation earlier this year, the conventional wisdom was that the governor would probably walk to an easy victory. Crist had spent his whole career occupying Florida’s political middle ground, and he was accordingly one of the country’s most popular governors. His candidacy seemed to scare off the most formidable potential Democratic challengers.
But the same factors that made Crist seem so daunting in a general election made him a target for his party’s conservatives. Outraged by the governor’s vocal support for the stimulus, his belief in the reality of climate change, and his generally insufficient devotion to GOP orthodoxy, the party’s right wing fell in behind apparent long-shot Rubio.
Well, chalk it up to the state’s struggling economy, or the toll that campaigning can take on anyone's popularity, but the sheen seems to be coming off Crist. A poll out yesterday showed the governor's approval rating down to 48 percent, from its recent towering heights. Meanwhile, the dogged support of an increasingly rightward-leaning party seems to be propelling Rubio forward. Last month, he appeared on the cover of the National Review with the headline “Yes, He Can.” His fundraising is picking up and nearly cleared $1 million in the third quarter of the year. And rumors are flitting around Florida that an unreleased poll conducted by the Chamber of Commerce shows Crist’s lead over Rubio down to a surmountable 14 points -- 44 to 30.
None of this means that Crist is done for: 14 points is surmountable though not negligible. And the governor is sitting on a vast war chest. Still, it looks like he -- like other Republican moderates this election cycle -- is in for a fight he may not have bargained for.