tampabay.com

Crist lights the way for GOP

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published March 4, 2007


Where have all the true believers gone?

That is the lament among Republican conservatives these days. They are unhappy with the party's top-tier presidential candidates. They can't bring themselves to trust Sen. John McCain, an Iraq hawk with an independent streak, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who stood tall during the 9/11 nightmare, or Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. Among the three pretenders, there are too many divorces (except for Romney) and too many flip-flops on abortion and gay rights for religious conservatives to have a comfort level with them. No wonder the GOP base is in a funk.

One of the few names that makes conservative hearts throb is Jeb Bush, but they know any presidential ambitions he may harbor will have to wait. He is a political casualty of his big brother's misadventure in Iraq, a mistake that became a quagmire that became a major foreign policy disaster. The unpopular war has closed the door on a presidential bid by Jeb Bush, perhaps forever.

There is some talk of McCain tapping the former Florida governor as his vice-presidential running mate as a sop to the party's right wing, but I think it would cost McCain more votes than it would bring to the ticket. Let's face it - the last thing most voters will want to see on the 2008 ballot is the name Bush.

Republicans should consider that their party's future may depend less on Jeb Bush than on Charlie Crist, who succeeded Bush as governor in January and is off to one of the most impressive starts I can remember in more than 40 years of covering state and national politics.

It's still early, but Crist, a self-styled populist, has done almost everything right so far. He is a politician of extraordinary charm who is not afraid to admit a mistake or change his mind. He says his political heroes are Ronald Reagan and the late Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, a Democratic icon. He included Democrats in his administration and has taken bipartisanship to new heights in Tallahassee. He has distanced himself from party conservatives on everything from abortion to Terri Schiavo, from gay marriage to restoring voting rights for ex-felons. His blind spot is his opposition to anything resembling a tax increase, and that could be a problem down the road.

The new governor has spent most of his time so far working with legislators on the two biggest problems facing Floridians - the homeowners insurance crisis and a property tax revolt. As attorney general and now as governor, Crist has championed civil rights and reached out to African-Americans to the point that some wags have dubbed him Florida's first black governor. The last time I looked, his approval rating was approaching 70 percent.

Crist is showing his party the way forward if Republicans want to recover from their rout in last November's congressional elections. Even some GOP analysts say Republicans need to start moving toward the political center if they hope to ever regain their position as a governing majority.

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who is a source of irritation to religious conservatives, recently advised his party to heed these words from Ronald Reagan: "Don't be afraid to see what you see."

In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Luntz wrote: "Today, many of (Reagan's) disciples are choosing not to see the obvious. Republicans in Congress cannot regain their majority merely by relying on a coalition of traditional conservatives and evangelicals. They must reach out to what I call the "fed-ups" - a large and growing constituency of independent voters who have held the balance of power in every election since 1992, and will hold it again in 2008."

Independent voters are more interested in candidates who offer real solutions to real problems than those who want to dwell on divisive social issues to excite and turn out religious conservatives.

Charlie Crist appears to understand this. Unlike his predecessor, he has no ideological or religious agenda. He calls himself "the people's governor" and tends to side with consumers against big corporations. He is just what Florida needed after eight years of Jeb Bush, who exerted strong leadership in the pursuit of some wrong-headed policies, some of which Crist is beginning to tweak or correct.

The Sunshine State's new Republican governor is trying to unite Floridians and to solve real problems. His national party should pay attention.