Crist proves he can deliver votes

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 31, 2008

The Jeb Bush political network in this state is legendary. After Tuesday, it's time to pay homage to the Charlie Crist political operation, which may very well be what puts John McCain into the White House.

How McCain, a moderate Republican reviled by a healthy segment of his party, won Florida's closed primary can be distilled into a single number: 1.93-million voters.

That massive Republican turnout - 50 percent of all Republicans, compared to 42 percent of Democrats - blew the doors off conventional turnout predictions for a Republican primary. Mitt Romney's strategists expected turnout could never get higher than 1.5-million and planned for a typical primary electorate of staunch conservatives paying close attention to the candidates.

That was a fatal miscalculation for Romney. Here's why: The Crist team was already working to pass the Amendment 1 tax initiative. Led by Tallahassee-based Republican strategist Rich Heffley, Crist's folks aggressively and successfully targeted voters who normally don't show up for Republican primaries.

Republicans who don't normally show up for primary elections tend to be less conservative, more moderate. They tend to be John McCain voters.

Also crucial to McCain's win were Hispanic voters in South Florida. While McCain and Romney were tied among non-Hispanic Republicans, exit polls showed Romney won just 9 percent of Cuban-American Republicans, compared to 54 percent for McCain and 32 percent for Rudy Giuliani.

With Giuliani's support in free-fall, Sen. Mel Martinez's endorsement of McCain provided a big boost among South Florida Hispanics. Romney, meanwhile, did himself little good in Florida by campaigning on a platform of deporting illegal immigrants.

Exit polls showed that McCain was the top choice of Republicans who described themselves as liberal or moderate, while Romney was the top choice for those who called themselves conservative. Among the more than one in four voters who called themselves "very conservative" 44 percent went with Romney and 21 percent with McCain.

Crist, popular in America's biggest battleground state before the election, is now an undisputed political star.

With speculation already swirling about his vice presidential prospects, his aides are aggressively pumping up Crist's political operation to reporters around the country. The message? Crist can deliver Florida.

It's hard to argue that point.

Fifty-four percent of McCain voters said Crist's endorsement was important. He was all over TV talking directly to voters about the tax initiative and about McCain in the final days of the campaign.

And he mobilized his most trusted political aides to get both passed.

"He looked at me Saturday night right after the endorsement and said 'Go turn on the Crist machine,"' Arlene DiBenigno, Crist's deputy chief of staff, said of the governor. "We treated this like it was another Charlie Crist campaign and called on our volunteers. The Crist family is still intact."

With help from the Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Association of State Troopers and a host of Cuban-American organizations, thousands of phone calls touting McCain hit households. Pasco County gun show guru Bill Bunting sent some 90,000 e-mails to gun enthusiasts.

Meanwhile the Realtors, assorted business groups and Crist's Yes on 1 team were methodically pursuing absentee ballots and in some cases phoning voters to tell them specifically how much money the tax amendment could save them.

Could a "live and let live" Republican really help a candidate like McCain who has his own conservative credibility problems? The expectation was that Florida's closed primary, in which only Republicans could cast ballots, would accentuate the strength of rock-ribbed conservatives.

Well, there was little evidence Tuesday that social conservatism is much of a force in this swing state.

Preacher-turned politician Mike Huckabee finished in fourth place; Miami-Dade passed a ballot initiative expanding gaming; the anti-gay marriage amendment looks like it may not have enough signatures to get on the ballot; and the governor who shows little interest in social conservatism looks as potent as ever.

John Stemberger, of the Orlando-based Florida Family Policy Council, was left to point to the demise of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor with a liberal record on social issues.

"That's positive proof that if you're going to be a player in the Republican Party you can't be unapologetically pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control," Stemberger said. "You've got to either be pro-life, or you've got to fool us into thinking you are."

Meanwhile, Crist on Wednesday was once again declining to rule out accepting a vice presidential offer.

"I love this job. It's a great job, and the people of Florida have been very kind to me to allow me to serve as their governor. I'm trying to do the best I can," Crist said. "I'm obviously very, very pleased for Sen. McCain."

Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.