Senator McCain: Crist, Martinez Won't Help Your Right Flank

The endorsement from the New York Times — quite possibly the paper least likely to influence conservatives anywhere — was one thing.  But when John McCain trotted out endorsements from Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez on the eve of the Florida primary, well, it reminded me of the verse from Oklahoma:  They got folks who don’t know the territory!

In the first-ever nomination battle McCain has faced this year that is limited to Republicans only, the senator needs to underscore conservative credentials to top Mitt Romney and win the Sunshine State’s 57 national convention delegates.  Accordingly, he lined up such noted names on the right as Jack Kemp, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. 

But Crist and Martinez?  If only McCain and his campaign team had been reading HUMAN EVENTS.  Crist is “the jolly green giant” — his party’s pointman on global warming and other issues that could well lead Al Gore to sue for copyright infringement.  Martinez is “Amnesty Mel” — still an outspoken advocate of the comprehensive immigration bill that died in the Senate last summer amid spirited opposition fanned by radio talk show hosts. 

“The Jolly Green Giant”

Earlier this year, we pointed out that “Arnold Schwarzenegger is getting competition these days for being the most liberal Republican governor in the nation. When it comes to embracing global warming and retreating from cultural conservatism, the Republican chief executive in Florida, Charlie Crist, is mentioned almost as frequently as the famed “Governator” of California.” 

Indeed, this publication also noted that “Like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s and Massachusetts Gov. William Weld in the 90s, Crist stands out in the media because, in a Republican Party that has been moving to the right, the Floridian is increasingly non-conservative.”

We noted the striking contrasts between Crist and his Republican predecessor in Tallahassee, Jeb Bush, who, unlike his father or brother, rarely had his conservative credentials doubted. As Governing magazine noted: “It’s true that Crist has started to roll back some of Bush’s privatization efforts and is unimpressed by Bush’s faith in standardized tests as the be-all of education policy. Crist rejected 283 of Bush’s late board and commission appointees and has not shied from putting some former Bush enemies in positions of power.”

Contrasting Crist’s regularly consulting Democratic legislators on policy matters with Bush’s passionate conservatism, state Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller told reporters: “I don’t recall our inviting Gov. Bush to any of our meetings. Since Gov. Crist has taken office, there really has been a new day in Tallahassee. For the first time, we feel like we are dealing in a partnership with the governor instead of having someone to dictate to us.”

What makes this somewhat strange, we concluded, “is that Crist doesn’t need to be in partnership with Democratic lawmakers, since Republicans control almost two-thirds of the seats in the state senate and house of representatives.”

In being contrasted to Bush, Crist is also frequently likened to California’s Schwarzenegger, a Republican who works with an overwhelming Democratic legislature and has embraced the cause of environmentalism with vigor. Earlier this year, he issued executive orders to cut emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks to pre-1990 levels. “European-style big-government mandates,” is what House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami, branded the governor’s orders, warning that Floridians could expect higher utility bills if the state goes along with Crist’s call to cut carbon emissions on utilities below 1990 levels.

In terms of social issues, the governor has said he doesn’t want the state Republican Party to spend any more money on promotion of a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. In his words, “I just think that their money can be better spent on other things that may be more pressing, like elections.” While running for governor in ‘06, Crist endorsed and even signed a petition for the Florida Marriage Amendment Protection Act.

In addition to civil unions for gay couples, the governor’s social agenda also includes support for embryonic stem-cell research and restoration of voting rights to former felons.

“Amnesty Mel” 

We only focused our microscope on Crist once.  As for Martinez, the Floridian that many conservative RNC members resented being forced on them as “general chairman” and who they privately derided as “Amnesty Mel” was covered frequently. 

The 167-member RNC passed a resolution in ’06 calling for border security. The measure, sculpted by Arizona GOP Chairman Randy Pullen, in effect repudiated the Administration position on immigration, which was a merger of security and processing the estimated 12 million aliens in the U.S. illegally.

But Martinez was resolute in calling for the comprehensive immigration package that included both some effort on border security and legalizing — somehow– the estimated 12 million immigrants in the US illegally.  He made a sharp speech in Florida criticizing his party’s presidential candidates who opposed the package — prompting RNC members who had held their tongue to start firing salvos at him.  (When I would go to national committee meetings and get to talk to the members in private, they inevitably talked about what a problem it was to have Martinez as chairman and almost deployed the name “Amnesty Mel.”).

Allthough it was long assumed Martinez would relinquish the party helm when a presidential nominee is chosen next September, the Floridian actually resigned last fall.  Clearly he was in an awkward spot because of representing an Administration stand that the party’s own committee was increasingly against.  But the former Bush Cabinet Member had paid a stiff price, as polls showed him with low approval ratings and one of the most vulnerable of GOP senators up for election in 2010.

Some late-breaking polls show John McCain with a slight edge over Mitt Romney in the balloting today. Others show the two GOP front-runners dead even in this all-important contest.  Whether the “Jolly Green Giant” and “Amnesty Mel” give McCain a boost or a shove at this critical point will surely be one of the defining moments in the ’08 Republican presidential sweepstakes.