Sinking in the polls, Crist tries to escape ‘opportunist’ label

Holly Bailey
The Upshot

With polls showing him running a distant second to GOP opponent Marco Rubio, Charlie Crist is desperately trying to regain his momentum in Florida's closely watched U.S. Senate race. But Crist's efforts to win back some of his support, especially among moderates and independents, may end up doing his campaign more harm than good -- especially when it comes to talking about his own political history.

On Friday, Crist defended his decision to quit the GOP to run as an independent, telling the Palm Beach Post's editorial board that he would have quit the party anyway to run as an insurgent candidacy in the race — even if he had been leading Rubio by 20 points in the GOP primary. "I absolutely would have," Crist said. "Because I think it's that important."

Crist's answer echoes the outsider theme of his independent campaign, which has cast him as someone who is not a slave to the politics of either political party. And it's a clear attempt to push back at claims by Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek that Crist is nothing more than a political opportunist. The only problem: Crist's answer blatantly contradicts what he said a few months ago.

In February, as polls showed the GOP primary tightening, Crist denied he would quit the GOP to make a third-party bid in the Senate race. "Not going to happen," Crist said. A little more than two months later, with Rubio leading the polls, Crist changed his mind and quit the party.

Asked by the Post about the discrepancy between what he says now and what he said in February, Crist replied, "Things evolve."

That's not the only issue Crist is trying to evolve on. As his opponents attack him as a "flip-flopper," the governor has been fairly candid about his shift in views on everything from offshore oil drilling to President Obama's health care plan. Recently, Crist has come under scrutiny for reversing his opinion on gay adoption. As a Republican, he opposed it, but now he supports it — a shift he explains by pointing out he's no longer constrained by the Republican Party's platform.

In an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Zac Anderson, Crist dismissed the idea that he's a "flip-flopper," insisting that what he's actually been is a consistent moderate. "When it comes to tax cuts, my response will be, 'Hell, yes.' When it comes to government in your bedroom, 'Hell, no,'" Crist said. "I don't think anybody's been more consistent."

That's not the way his opponents see it. Last week, Meek and the Florida Democratic Party launched an ad attacking Crist as an opportunist by using old footage of the governor bragging about being a conservative and praising GOP figures including George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.

Asked about the ad, Crist, who was once viewed a potential 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate, tells Anderson he appeared for people like Palin more out of courtesy and "a nod to Sen. McCain, out of great respect for him."

(Photo of Crist: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)