Riddle of a Race

Member Group : Salena Zito

The best way to forecast Florida’s Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat is to quote Winston Churchill: "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

Basically, the race defies conventional wisdom.

A few months ago, Gov. Charlie Crist, hugely popular, was set to win in a landslide over former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Last week, a Rasmussen poll of likely Republican voters showed Crist and Rubio tied at 43 percent.

The political riddle is why Rubio cut Crist’s lead by more than half. Is Rubio gaining or is Crist slipping?

"I think it is a combination of both," Rubio said, in between his son’s school play and campaigning. "People are starting to realize they have a choice now, and the polls show they are considering outside of the establishment."

Part of Rubio’s gain is natural: Crist is better known — but a challenger usually can cut a big lead once he gets enough financing to make himself known.

If Earth stands still and conditions don’t change — a big "if" — Crist likely will win the nomination and the seat. But when did Earth last stand still?

Two things going on nationally make the Crist-Rubio race a bellwether for just about every primary.

One is schisms within parties — and a bigger schism exists among Republicans than among Democrats. Democrats, though less cohesive and more varied than Republicans, are much less likely to want to commit fratricide.

The other thing is what ultimately decides primaries: a fired-up base. Unfortunately for Crist, he has become the national poster child for party discontent; his collapsing poll numbers put that in perspective.

If national conservatives decide this race is where they make their stand against moderates, a lot of momentum, focus and money will follow.

For Republicans, this will be a battle between pragmatic instincts and political purity.

New York’s 23rd Congressional District race was an excellent example. Party leaders picked the kind of candidate who might have won; the base backed the guy likely to lose.

The disconnected and discontented have gravitated toward "tea parties," anti-health-reform protests and cable-news shows such as Glenn Beck’s; re-engaged in politics, they have a love-hate relationship with their natural party, the GOP.

They want to be part of a conservative governing majority for less government but don’t trust the GOP and are weary of the "establishment" (code for "socially tolerant and fiscally willing to spend taxpayer money").

They despise the eight years of earmarks and pay-to-play that was the Bush administration; they oppose the prescription-drug program that Republicans gave seniors. Yet because of Democrats’ 2006 midterm gains and 2008 presidential win, necessity dictates they be part of the GOP’s efforts to win in 2010.

But with that comes a price regarding political purity: No longer can candidates have it both ways — running as conservatives while being moderates.

The purity test will apply in Florida, and the younger, purer Bush family members will have an influence.

As House speaker, Rubio was then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s partner in conservative governance. And while Crist once was able to talk conservatively and govern from the middle, that now is a liability as he abandons the governor’s office for a shot at the U.S. Senate; inconsistency and impurity are causing him problems.

The GOP probably will win this race, regardless of the primary’s outcome. Yet the party’s standard-bearer will speak volumes about its direction.

If Rubio wins, a new brand of appealing conservatism — in the mold of Virginia’s Bob McDonnell — will be seen as the GOP’s strategy for victory and the pathway to its 2012 nomination. (Think Tim Pawlenty.)

If Crist wins, the John McCain of 2008 will loom large — and Mitt Romney will have a leg up on the 2012 nomination.