Crist uses Martinez appointment to boost Senate bid

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is using Sen. Mel Martinez's (R-Fla.) resignation to his political advantage, winning allies across the state as he searches for a replacement, whom he could name as early as this week.

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Crist is running for Martinez's seat in the 2010 election but faces conservative former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) in the GOP primary. Although the governor leads by a wide margin in public polls, Rubio has won several straw polls at local Republican events, signaling Crist has fences to mend.

So, in an effort to win friends among conservatives he has alienated, Crist has interviewed more than half a dozen potential successors eager to fill out the remainder of Martinez's term. They range from close allies like former chief of staff George LeMieux to political veterans like ex-Rep. Clay Shaw (R) and hard-line conservatives, including state Sen. Daniel Webster.

Ten candidates remain in contention, with political observers seeing three as true entries on the shortlist. Former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez, LeMieux and former Attorney General Jim Smith are the inside favorites, sources said.

LeMieux, who is rumored to be aiding the selection process behind the scenes, could cause some controversy, given his close ties to Crist.

Picking him, said Orange County Republican Party Chairman Lew Oliver, "would only be, from a perception perspective, only slightly less damaging than appointing himself."

Smith has run into trouble lately because of his past as a lobbyist after he left office. And few know Bob Martinez (no relation to the senator), making some conservatives nervous.

So far, at least four candidates — Reps. Bill Young and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and businesswoman Susan Story — have taken their names out of contention even after Crist asked them to submit questionnaires.

Crist has spent the last several weeks reaching out to a large number of Republican officials, including most of the state's county party chairmen, in search of input.

"What he's doing is taking the opportunity to be seen to be spending a great deal of time and effort to care about this a lot, and he's flattering people a lot," Oliver said. Crist called Oliver, who offered to fill the seat himself; barring that, Oliver gave Crist two names, including Webster's.

Justin Sayfie, who runs a prominent Florida political report, said Crist is doing himself a favor by interviewing candidates in their own jurisdictions. Last week, he sat down with Bob Martinez in Miami and met state Rep. Jennifer Carroll and ex-Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney in Jacksonville. He has interviewed other candidates in Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee as well.

The exposure in local media markets, Sayfie said, will give him free media as he pursues his own bid. But, he warned, Crist should be ready for attacks from Rubio and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), the leading Senate candidate on the Democratic side.

"Whoever he picks, one of his opponents, if not both, will try to make political hay," Sayfie said. "That just comes with the territory.”

The candidates not chosen for the seat are unlikely to be thrilled either.

"I'm sure there will be some disappointed people. With the schism in the party now, there's bound to be some disappointed people," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, referring to the widening gap between centrist Crist and the more conservative Rubio.

Additionally, observers said Crist's long process — he requested seven-page questionnaires from each of 13 candidates — could irritate Republicans eager to find a replacement for Martinez.

“People are getting weary of the addition-a-day to the list, and they're ready for the choice. Sooner is better than later," MacManus said. "The longer he waits, the more this looks political."

But political can work, and as Crist faces his own battle for the seat to which he will appoint a caretaker, he is using the opportunity to make more friends than he is losing.

"Everybody he interviews is flattered. Who doesn't want to be known as being considered for a Senate seat?" Oliver asked. Oliver joked about offering himself as a candidate when Crist called. "I said I would be willing to make the sacrifice," he said.

But ask anyone in Florida to make a prediction and the answer is the same. "I haven't a clue," Oliver concedes.

“The governor can be unpredictable, and it's his pick and only his pick,” Sayfie added. “It's leaving a lot of political people guessing.”

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