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Florida’s GOP Primary Heats Up with Anger over Government Spending

April 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Judy Woodruff wraps up a week of reporting from Tampa on public views of government with a look at the rise of the political right in Florida and an unexpectedly competitive race for a U.S. Senate seat.
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JIM LEHRER: Now we wrap up a week of reports from Tampa, Florida, where we went to spotlight what Americans think the role of government should be.

That debate generated a politics of anger that led to an unexpectedly competitive Republican primary race for a U.S. Senate seat.

Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On tax day all across the country, members of the Tea Party movement gathered to rally and protest, including here in downtown Tampa.

MAN: So, let’s fight to take back our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s anger like this that has helped fuel the rise of an upstart young candidate for a Senate seat in the fourth most populous state in the country, setting off a pitched battle inside the Republican Party.

WOMAN: Good luck.

MARCO RUBIO, R, Florida Senatorial candidate: Thank you so much. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The son of Cuban immigrants, 38-year-old Marco Rubio wasn’t well known when he announced his candidacy last year. He had served in the Florida Statehouse, rising to speaker, but few thought he had a chance against the popular Governor Charlie Crist.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST, R-Fla.: How about a hug, Francine? I feel it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Out of the public eye, though, things looked different. With the primary open only to registered Republicans, Rubio spent months traveling around the state, getting to know local activists, who were impressed, so much so, he quickly became the darling of the right.

MARCO RUBIO: And the reason why I’m running for the U.S. Senate is simple. I know that, in this race, I’m the only candidate that you can trust to go to Washington, D.C., and stand up to this agenda, and, in its place, offer a very clear alternative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And many Republicans were already suspicious of Crist and his occasional moves toward the political center on the environment and with court appointments.

Those gestures toward moderation, which, a year or so earlier, might have appealed to Florida’s large bloc of independent voters, ended up backfiring inside the GOP. And this happened as the political ground was shifting in Washington, with partisanship growing more heated, and President Obama’s policies more controversial.

Obama’s economic stimulus plan was attacked by Republicans as costly and ineffective, criticism that especially stuck here in Florida, with its go-go economy hit hard by devastating job losses and home foreclosures.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: Please give a warm Florida welcome to President Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when Crist not only announced support of the stimulus plan, but briefly embraced the president on a visit to Florida, it left him wide-open for a charge that he was breaking faith with his party.

JENNIFER PFAFF, Florida: The biggest thing with Crist was supporting the stimulus bill for me. He literally embraced that. And, to me, that is really going back on — not supporting the Republican Party. If that’s how he thinks he’s going to help the state of Florida, he just needs to be a Democrat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a charge Crist has spent the past year trying to fend off, as he was last weekend at the sprawling Villages retirement community in Central Florida.

WOMAN: Now, we will be voting for you.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: Thank you.

WOMAN: Now, what about not — you can’t stand with Obama, though. You’ve got to be careful about that picture.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I will be — it’s a good picture.

WOMAN: All right. Well…

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: He’s the president of the United States of America.

WOMAN: I know. Yes.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: And I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do respect everybody.

WOMAN: All right. All right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On a hotel patio the next day, Crist told me he doesn’t regret his actions.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: The fact that I greeted him when he came here, and accepted the stimulus money, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s what America stands for, that you should be decent to one another, regardless of your political affiliation or other differences that one might have with another human being.

But I think what’s important is that you’re willing to work with people for the benefit of the people of my state. That’s what I did with the stimulus. It saved 20,000 teachers their jobs, after all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Retiree Dan Hamill is one of the few Republicans we found who says he understands why Crist did what he did.

DAN HAMILL, retiree: With all the other states getting the — getting the benefits, I think it would have been crazy for Governor Crist not to take some of the incentives. Now, whether he should have hugged President Obama is another issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Marco Rubio says the campaign is about more than the stimulus, that what’s at stake is the future of the Republican Party.

MARCO RUBIO: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We talked on his campaign bus this week.

MARCO RUBIO: And that’s when the Republican Party has been most successful, when it’s been the home of limited government, free enterprise, strong national defense.

And what Republicans are looking for is to send people to Washington that will be consistent and reliable and trustworthy on those issues. And I think that what’s hurt Charlie Crist is the fact that he’s unreliable on those issues. He’s unreliable on many issues, where, one day, he’s on one side of the issue, and, then, when the political winds shift, he shifts with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rubio’s conservative backers put it more bluntly.

Lake County Commissioner Jimmy Conner:

JIMMY CONNER, Lake County, Fla., commissioner: The conservatives are ready to kick the door down to get to the ballot box. We do not want to send the next Arlen Specter to Washington, D.C., to represent the state of Florida, and that’s what we fear you would get with Charlie Crist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many Crist supporters, however, say they are sick of the gridlock in Washington.

LISA BURKE, Charlie Crist supporter: You really don’t want to send someone to Washington who is not going to be able to do business. He would stand with the Republican if he feels that it’s right for Florida. I want to get business done in Washington. And, if that means compromise and being friendly to the other side, then that’s what we have to do.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: Going to take a little common sense to Washington, all right?

MAN: Sounds good. OK.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: And help me get there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Crist describes himself as loyal to the principles of Ronald Reagan, but suggests that doesn’t mean voting in lockstep with his party.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I watch Washington, like a lot of people across my state do. And I think they’re frustrated with the rancor and the bitterness and the bickering that people see. I don’t think that’s good for America. I think we need a dose of Florida common sense in Washington, to be candid with you, and I think I can bring that there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just yesterday, Crist sent an even stronger signal he’s prepared to depart from Republican orthodoxy, when he vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature to impose a merit-pay system on Florida’s public school teachers.

The veto defied former Governor Jeb Bush, who had led the push for the bill, and it prompted former Senator Connie Mack to resign as Crist’s campaign chairman.

PROTESTERS: Veto! Veto! Veto!

JUDY WOODRUFF: Florida teachers, however, who had risen up in protest against the bill, were thrilled, some even promising to switch party registration to Republican as a thank-you to Crist.

WOMAN: I would certainly be willing to change my registration so I can vote in the primaries. The teachers are not going to forget. We will remember in November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But political science professor Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida told us before the veto it is unlikely enough teachers would switch parties to make a difference.

SUSAN MACMANUS, Political Science Professor, University of South Florida: For Crist, Senate Bill 6 is probably the most difficult decision he will have to make as governor. Many see his political future riding on what he does with that bill.

And that’s a pretty monumental decision. And, as a governor, he hasn’t had to make a lot of tough decisions. This is clearly what many people say is a line-in-the-sand kind of issue for him, for his ambitions politically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, speculation is growing that Crist may run as an independent, which polls show would improve his chances in a three-way contest against Rubio and the Democratic Party nominee, likely Congressman Kendrick Meek. With two weeks to decide, Crist chooses his words carefully.

What are the chances that you could run as an independent?

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I have no intent of doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Absolutely rule it out?

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: No intent of doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Absolutely rule out?

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: Absolutely have no intention of doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No intention, but is there any chance?

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: Not that I can foresee, at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the primary has quickly grown expensive, more than $20 million raised so far, and ugly. Crist is targeting Rubio’s use of a GOP credit card for personal use.

NARRATOR: Rubio used Republican political donations on his lavish lifestyle.

NARRATOR: Then failed to properly disclose it.

NARRATOR: Violating the law.

NARRATOR: Marco Rubio — how disappointing.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I care deeply about my fellow Floridians. And I don’t want somebody to try to fool them. And I don’t want them to entrust their vote to somebody who is saying one thing, and yet did another.

NARRATOR: Why is a desperate Charlie Crist falsely attacking Marco Rubio? Can’t Florida do better?

CROWD: Yes, we can~! Yes, we can~!

MARCO RUBIO: He has the right, I imagine, to smear me and say these kinds of things. I think it’s unbecoming, quite frankly.

I — I never thought I would see a sitting Republican governor say these sorts of things about another Republican. But he has a right to do that. And it’s a free country, and he has a right to say these things with his campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With more than four months to go until the Republican primary, Florida voters are being treated to the sort of fight usually reserved for general elections.

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: Oh, I think it still is a Crist stronghold.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One analyst said the race is actually a referendum on President Obama.

Former State Senate President Tom Lee, a Rubio supporter, told me the state that voted for Obama a year-and-a-half ago now wants something different.

TOM LEE, R, Former Florida State Senate President: I feel like what we have gone through in America over the last 18 months has redefined us as a people. I think people are more conservative today. I have been inspired by the speed at which this democracy is capable of self-correcting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Crist supporter Greg Truax, however, says the governor has just started to campaign, and predicts that he will pick up Tea Party support.

GREG TRUAX, Charlie Crist supporter: The state budget is lower. We have tax cuts. Crime is down. School rankings are up. We have Tea Party supporters, because they are much about a smaller government and less spending. And that’s something that Charlie Crist is very much about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And no one is watching with greater interest than members of the Tea Party movement, who see this as one of their first opportunities to determine who represents them in Washington.