Outside the White House and flanked by his fellow governors, Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist yesterday strongly defended his decision to become the first governor to embrace the $787 billion stimulus package and embrace President Obama as well. As for the sharp criticism of his actions from his conservative opponent for the Republican U.S Senate nomination, Crist said of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio: “He’s wrong and I’m right.”
Crist and his fellow state chief executives were in Washington for the National Governors Association meeting. Following a session with Obama and other officials, they met the press outside the Oval Office.
Asked about criticism from Republicans in Congress that the Obama-backed stimulus package was not working, Crist shot back: “That’s not the case in Florida.” He went on to tell reporters that accepting the stimulus money was “the responsible and right thing to do for the people and it puts people above politics.”
In his state, Crist insisted, the simulus money “created or maintained at least 87,000 jobs, 27,000 of those jobs are educators and teachers throughout our state. I dare say what impact this would have had on the students if those teachers were out of work and unable to put bread on the table for their families.”
“So you have apologies for your position on the stimulus package or the [public] embrace of the President,” I asked, “in spite of the criticism of your [Senate] primary opponent?”
“I can’t apologize for it at all—we needed the money,” Crist fired back without hesitation. As for the strong criticism of Rubio (who call Crist’s support of the stimulus package “a horrifying decision”), the governor shot back: “It doesn’t matter at all—not one iota. He’s wrong and I’m right.!”
Regarding his public embrace of the President, the Florida governor explained: “I was raised in a family in which my parents and two sisters and I were taught by my parents to show civility to others. And you know, I was raised to respect the presidency of the United States. [He did not go on to explain how “respect” meant a public hug of the President]”
Making it clear there was much he disagreed with Obama on, Crist quickly added that “by golly, when we agree on something. . . I’m going to be there and I’m going to thank him.”
Recent polls among Florida Republicans have showed Rubio not only leading Crist in the primary to succeed appointed Sen. Charles LeMieux (R.-Fla.) but gradually increasing his margin. According to a just-completed Rasmussen Poll of likely GOP primary voters in the Sunshine State, the conservative Rubio leads the more moderate Crist by a margin of 54% to 36% statewide. Rubio’s momentum had led to mounting rumors that the governor will follow the path of Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut in ’06 and run as an independent.
Following the session with reporters, I caught up with Crist as he was leaving the entrance to the White House and asked about the rumors that he is considering “pulling a Lieberman.”
“I’m running as a Republican,” he told me.
When I pressed him about ever having discussed an independent candidacy for the Senate, Crist admitted that “some friends of mine talked to me about it, but I haven’t embraced it. I’m running as a Republican.”