Florida’s Crist challenges Obama on bipartisanship and distances himself from moderate Republicans

Jon Ward Contributor
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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist didn’t run away when Barack Obama came to his state for a visit on Thursday, as he did in October. But nor was the welcome warm: the Republican governor planned to greet the president at the airport to confront him over broken promises.

“I’m disappointed that not enough bipartisanship has occurred,” Crist told Florida radio talk show host Jimmy Cefalo on Thursday morning, ahead of Obama’s midday arrival. “He talks about it and gives a great speech, but he’s got to follow through on the action and not just have Republicans come to the table, but incorporate their ideas, incorporate what they want to do, what we want to do.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Obama and Democrats in Washington have pinned much of the blame for a stalled health-care bill on Republican opposition. The president in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday called on the GOP to demonstrate “a responsibility to govern.”

Crist, who in the latest poll fell behind Marco Rubio in the Republican primary for Florida’s open Senate seat, also tried to distance himself from an association with Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican considered too moderate by many hard-core conservatives.

“Why do you think you’ve been painted as a moderate Republican, a John McCain-like Republican, as opposed to someone like a Jim Demint, for example?” Cefalo asked Crist.

“I really don’t know,” Crist said. “Probably because it’s the political season, and somebody’s trying to win a primary, so they try to paint you into a particular picture that doesn’t really meet reality.”

A spokeswoman for McCain, who is facing a primary challenge from the right himself, did not respond to a request for comment.

Crist called himself “a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-family conservative Republican with common sense.”

Crist, who in October did not appear once with Obama during the president’s two-day trip to the state, did not back down Thursday from his support of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus, saying that his support of the program in February a year ago was “the right thing to do.”

“We would have had 20,000 more educators out of work today if we didn’t have that support. And Lord knows how many law enforcement officers, firefighters,” Crist said. “Do I think everything in the stimulus is great? Of course not … But it has provided jobs for our fellow Floridians.”

But it was Crist’s appearance with Obama at a rally a year ago, as the stimulus hung in the balance in Congress, that has haunted the governor ever since. Rubio, the telegenic son of Cuban immigrants, has pounded him at every turn for the move. A Rubio spokesman continued the barrage in the wake of Crist’s comments on Thursday.

“He’s adopted the Obama talking points in terms of positioning the stimulus as having been about saving jobs. His position was that it would create jobs,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos. “There’s been no net job creation.”

Burgos said that almost* 1.1 million Floridians are unemployed, a 34-year high.

Burgos also said that the speculation over whether Crist would appear with Obama leading up to Thursday was “shows how painful this issue has been.”

“The fact that he has to labor and over think whether it’s ok to greet the president when he comes to visit is very telling about how disastrous the stimulus policy has been.”

Rubio, who trailed Crist in the polls last summer by 30 points, was on top of the governor by 47 percent to 44 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday.

Rubio has only $1.75 million in his campaign war chest compared to Crist’s $7.5 million, but has begun to raise money at the same rate. The two will square off in the state’s Aug. 24 primary.

*The article originally reported Mr. Burgos as stating that more than 1.1 million Floridians are unemployed.