Popular former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is predicting that the makeup of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s inner circle of advisers, which includes several strategists who ran former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s ill-fated Senate campaign against conservative standard-bearer Marco Rubio, will hurt Romney’s image with Florida voters.
In an exclusive Newsmax interview Monday evening, McCollum said Sunshine State voters “will not be favorably inclined to that, because most Republican primary voters in Florida know that Charlie Crist flopped on them. He went over to the Democrats’ side … it just wasn’t the same Charlie Crist they thought they’d elected.”
McCollum also told Newsmax that Newt Gingrich, whom he supports, will likely win the GOP nomination. To see related story, click here.
In 2006, Crist ran on a conservative platform to succeed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But the pragmatic positions Crist took as governor, including his veto of a bill popular with conservatives that would link the pay of Florida teachers to students’ test scores, fostered his image as a political opportunist.
Still, Crist was the overwhelming favorite to win his 2010 U.S. Senate race. Pundits dubbed him the “inevitable senator,” and he led Rubio by over 30 points in the early polls.
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Crist’s strategy was to woo swing voters while keeping Florida conservatives at arms-length during the primary campaign – tactics some analysts see as eerily similar to the approach taken by Romney.
The coup de grace came in February 2009 at a Fort Myers, Florida rally, when Crist literally embraced Democratic President Barack Obama’s nearly $1 trillion stimulus plan. Former Gov. Bush described Crist’s support for Obama’s policies “unforgiveable,” and Crist’s poll numbers plummeted.
The tactics Crist adopted to reverse his slide was two-fold: Continue to spurn tea-party style conservatives, and go sharply negative against Rubio. “The strategy to beat Rubio: Call him a crook and a hypocrite,” reported the Miami Herald last month, when looking back at the role Romney’s strategists played in Crist’s campaign.
When it became apparent in April 2010 that Crist could not defeat Rubio in the Republican primary, he bolted the GOP to run as an independent. Crist’s top GOP strategists immediately resigned, including those who are now advising Romney.
On Monday, Newsmax reported that Romney has recruited several former Crist aides to be top advisers. They are led by controversial GOP strategist Stuart Stevens. Stevens and partner Russ Schriefer are the principals in the high-profile Stevens & Schriefer Group, a Washington-based political consultancy firm.
That firm had a long history with Crist, serving as chief strategists for his bids for education commissioner, attorney general, governor, and later for the U.S. Senate.
Other senior Crist political aides from his failed Senate campaign have joined forces with Romney. Amanda Henneberg had served as Crist’s press secretary and now is a spokeswoman with the Romney 2012 campaign. Likewise, Andrea Saul, who was Crist’s communications director, now is Romney’s press secretary.
On Monday, McCollum remarked in the exclusive Newsmax interview: “I think that’s another sign that Mitt Romney is a moderate Republican, and I think these probably are good people, good operatives. But Charlie Crist flip-flopped a lot. I liked Charlie personally, but I didn’t agree with his politics. It’s just emblematic of what we’ve seen in other ways in the Romney campaign.”
The sensitivity of Florida conservatives to the presence of former Crist advisers in Romney’s campaign shows the enduring dislike they have for Crist, as well as the politics of triangulation that he symbolizes in Florida.
Contrasting with Romney’s tactics is the fact that his chief opponent in Florida for the Republican presidential nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, hired Rubio’s campaign manager, Jose Mallea, to run his statewide campaign. Gingrich told a St. Petersburg, Fla., audience Tuesday morning the contrast between his strategists and Romney’s “tells you everything you needed to know about this contest.”
Given Crist’s stunning defeat at Rubio’s hands, McCollum said, Romney clearly would not intentionally follow his strategy.
“But I believe that there’s no question that he’s more moderate than Newt Gingrich is,” said McCollum, who is serving as chairman of Gingrich’s Florida effort. “I think that it’s been very apparent in South Carolina, it’s very apparent to tea party folks and conservatives paying attention in Florida, that Newt Gingrich is truly the most conservative candidate out there, and most reliably conservatives. Romney’s changed his positions many times.”
McCollum, a loyal Republican stalwart who himself lost a gubernatorial primary election against current Florida Gov. Rick Scott, added: “Mitt Romney has tried to be conservative on a couple of issues, tried to say, ‘Hey, this is me, I’m tougher.’ But overall he is not the same as a committed conservative like Newt Gingirch is, someone who’s been around a long time and understand not only the economy but national defense and all those other things as well.
“So I just think probably his campaign staff is not serving him that well in this regard — but who’s to say?
Read more on Newsmax.com: McCollum: Crist-Romney Ties Turn Off Florida Voters Important: Do You Support Pres. Obama’s Re-Election? Vote Here Now!