TALLAHASSEE — A little over a year ago, it looked as if the table had been set for November 2010.
Gov. Charlie Crist, touted by pundits as a member of the “New Republicans,” basked in the national spotlight along with his fellow Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, two members of the Grand Old Party who were “in step” with the mood of the country and the tenor of the times.
So, it seemed a foregone conclusion when Crist decided to run for the U.S. Senate that the stars were again aligned for the governor who was comfortable enough to give the president a "man hug" in appreciation for federal help as the state faced its worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.
Crist’s decision to step away from a second term as governor set off what seemed at the time an orderly chain of political events. Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, whose own political career included multiple statewide runs, would become the heir apparent on the Republican side.
He would face Democratic candidate Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer and that party’s top-ranking official, to determine who would get to redecorate the Governor’s Mansion (and presumably take down some of the ubiquitous Highwaymen art of which their predecessor was so fond). It all seemed so perfect. So prearranged. So, so boring. What channel is “Dancing with the Stars” re-runs?
Then something happened to bust up that perfectly ordered universe. The popular president started making tough, controversial decisions and his popularity paid the price. Fiscal conservatives, who historically have flocked to the Republican Party, were especially concerned.
With nearly a $1 trillion earmark to prime the economy, federal spending was out of control. Further, the ambitious president decided to go after the health-care industry. Crist, whose continued popularity in the midst of a national political shift had befuddled the analysts, wasn’t coated in Teflon anymore.
Frustrated over the presumed course of events, former House Speaker Marco Rubio jumped into the race. Written off at first as a nonstarter positioning himself for a future statewide run, Rubio’s conservative message rode the pendulum of public opinion straight to the top. Rubio became the darling of the besieged right and national money started flowing into what was once a shoestring campaign.
Crist, unable to muster the support to make it to the general election, bolted from the party with which he increasingly seemed at odds.
Surely that is enough political drama for one campaign cycle. But wait, there’s more.
McCollum’s apparent lock on the Republican side of the governor’s race is also not as secure as it once seemed. Last month, Naples millionaire and former health-care executive Rick Scott leaped onto the picture.
Following a $4 million advertizing blitz, Scott finds himself trailing McCollum by 14 percentage points in a Mason Dixon Polling and Research poll released over the weekend. It’s certainly a surmountable gap given that Scott has the money to finance his own campaign. The Republican primary is in August.
So instead of a predictable GOP cycle, 2010 is setting up as a barn burner. Stay tuned. This one is going to be one for the books.
E-mail Michael Peltier at email@example.com.