Can Crist learn lessons from other independent Senate bids?

McClatchy NewspapersApril 30, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's independent bid for the U.S. Senate is prompting comparisons to Sen. Joe Lieberman's 2006 election, when the Connecticut Democrat bucked his party after losing a primary and successfully ran as an independent.

A Republican until this week, Crist, after all, has "The Hug," his embrace of President Barack Obama and the $787 billion stimulus package, which enraged conservative Republicans. Lieberman, likewise, had "The Kiss," his nuzzle with President George W. Bush, whom he backed on the Iraq War — much to the dismay of many anti-war Democrats.

Yet Lieberman campaign operatives and outside political observers say the differences between the two races outweigh the similarities, underscoring the "uncharted territory" — as Crist called it — that the governor now faces as he goes it alone.

Lieberman, for starters, was a nationally known Democrat running for re-election to his fourth term in a small state friendly to independents. His Republican opponent was weak and Lieberman had a national fundraising base that kept him competitive.

Crist, on the other hand, likely faces two strong candidates — Republican Marco Rubio, the former Florida House Speaker, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek.

But Crist could pick up some lessons from Lieberman — and perhaps a template from a Connecticut race won by another independent: Lowell Weicker, a one-time Republican who left the party and won the governorship as an independent in 1990.

Like Crist, Weicker ran against two tough candidates in 1990 with strong bases of support and money. Weicker had a long history with voters — he had won three U. S. Senate races and cultivated a reputation as a maverick willing to challenge his own party.

As a result, said Thomas D'Amore, a Hartford-based political consultant and former state GOP chairman who masterminded Weicker's 1990 campaign, Weicker was able to play the role of both insider and outsider. That's similar to what Crist, who has won statewide office in Florida three times but is now pitching himself as politically independent, is looking to do.

"People are really looking for an outsider, and Crist just made himself the ultimate outsider," said D'Amore, who was an adviser to Lieberman's Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, in 2006. "He should be emphasizing that."

But Crist may have to watch his step: Lieberman and Weicker benefitted from Connecticut's New England Yankee tradition of independence, strategists said. That's not the case in Florida.

"Florida is a more partisan state than Connecticut," said Neil Newhouse, a Virginia-based pollster who polled for Lieberman in 2006. His firm had been polling for Crist this cycle but left after Crist announced his independent bid. "Voters in Florida are used to, in effect, using the party lever."

And there's timing. Lieberman lost the Democratic Senate primary to Lamont, a Greenwich businessman, in August. But he won 48 percent of the Democratic vote, giving him a strong base to start — and he only needed to keep up the momentum for three months. Crist has six months.

Money will also be a factor for Crist, who lost his natural fundraising base when he bolted from the GOP.

"We had a strong, reliable fundraising base," recalled Lieberman 2006 strategist and longtime aide Dan Gerstein, now a New York-based consultant. The base, including Jewish groups and Cubans in South Florida, had been with Lieberman for more than 30 years, knew him, trusted him and could be instantly tapped for funds.

Lieberman also benefited from the fact that Democratic discontent with him stemmed largely from a single issue: his support for the war in Iraq. Crist, though, is unpopular with his party because of the veto of a GOP-backed education bill, as well as his support for the federal stimulus package and his bypassing of a favored conservative choice for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court.

Lieberman and Crist share a likabilty factor, analysts said. With Lieberman, a strong, vocal core of voters opposed his support of the Iraq war, but a larger number felt they knew him and trusted him. That became obvious as Lieberman worked the Main Streets and the community centers of a state dotted with small, tradition-bound towns.

Crist, too, has remained a relatively popular governor, even as his political fortune in the Republican Party soured.

"Charlie Crist is a unique public figure, and if there is a guy who can pull this off, it's him," said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant and director of President Barack Obama's successful 2008 Florida campaign.

Schale suggested that for Crist to win, Meek would have to remain relatively unknown and Rubio would have to be damaged by the investigation into the use of his credit card.

"The most positive argument for Charlie is that people don't have the time or money to get introduced to the other two, so they go with the devil they know because they like him," Schale said.

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