Crist's Conundrum: Who to Pick to Replace Retiring Florida Sen. Martinez

Florida governor must choose temp carefully or ruin his own shot at the seat next year.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Charlie Crist has a problem.

Now the governor of Florida, Crist decided to forego a bid for a second term in favor of a campaign to win the U.S. Senate seat of fellow Republican Mel Martinez, who decided not to run for re-election after serving just one six-year term.

Crist is a more moderate Republican than many of his fellow Florida partisans, which led former state House Speaker Marco Rubio to throw his hat in the ring and enter the upcoming GOP Senate primary. Rubio is decidedly more conservative than Crist, with an intense and active following even though the latest polls show him behind Crist by almost 30 points, 55 percent to 26 percent.

Rubio supporters say the gap reflects his lack of statewide name identification, but he still has a tough row to hoe. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose job it is to win seats for the GOP in Congress's upper chamber, has already endorsed Crist, likely believing that his current popularity as governor would translate into an easy win for a party that can ill afford to lose any more U.S. Senate seats.

But Martinez has thrown everyone a curve, announcing he not only was retiring from the Senate but would be leaving a year early, meaning Crist would have to choose a temporary senator to fill the vacancy in the seat he himself would be campaigning to win over the coming year.

Crist has already said he would not appoint himself, which is a wise political move. The last governor to do that—or something very nearly like that—ended up costing his own party both its seats in the U.S. Senate as well as the governorship. The challenge of finding Martinez's temporary successor creates for Crist something of a box, very much akin to the "battle of wits" between Vizzini and "The Man in Black" in 1987's The Princess Bride; the perils associated with each choice are easily identifiable while the correct answer, the best answer, remains illusive.

He cannot, for example, appoint as senator someone like former Gov. Jeb Bush—or, for that matter, Bush himself—because he would invite comparisons concerning stature and statesmanship that could be politically damaging. But he cannot appoint an unknown quantity either, because those who would rather not see Crist go to the Senate would seize upon it as an example of a lack of political courage.

If Crist appoints a moderate like himself, he gives ammunition to the more conservative Rubio for the primary. If he appoints someone who is more conservative than he is himself he invites comparisons that would energize the GOP's base in a way that pushes it in Rubio's direction.

It is an unenviable position for an ambitious politician to be in. Whomever he picks, it could turn out to be, in a political sense, the worst decision he ever made.

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