NRSC cools its support of Gov. Crist

National Republicans are hedging their bets in Florida as they watch Gov. Charlie Crist fall further and further behind in the polls.

National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Air Force makes criminal reporting changes after Texas massacre We need a better pathway for allowing civilians to move guns across state lines MORE isn't asking for a do-over in the Republican Senate primary, but he certainly sounded like he has buyer’s remorse.

Cornyn (R-Texas) said Monday that his endorsement of Crist was “selfish” and suggested it was also premature.

In what almost sounded like an apology, Cornyn stuck by the endorsement, saying he was “honor-bound” to do so. But he also took steps to minimize it, now that it looks like Crist may lose to former state House Speaker Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE.

“Selfishly, given the limited resources we have and the national scope of our responsibilities here, I didn’t want to have to spend any money in Florida if we didn’t have to,” Cornyn said at a meeting with reporters. “So Charlie Crist seemed like the ideal candidate. This had nothing to do with Marco Rubio, whom I subsequently met and have a lot of respect for.”

Crist’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Recent polls have shown Rubio stealing virtually all the momentum in the race and opening a double-digit lead over Crist heading into the August primary. Rubio also recently had a star turn at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington and is now being hailed as a future leader of his party.

What’s more, Rubio is a darling of the conservative Tea Party movement, which showed its power last year in a New York special election and has gotten involved in several races this cycle.

Cornyn called that movement “a very important and significant development. People who were not previously engaged are being heard from.”

The Republican campaign chief emphasized that he endorsed Crist, a popular governor who helped boost Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (Ariz.) to the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, before it was clear there would be a difficult primary. And Cornyn pointed out that Crist’s candidacy and fundraising ability may have scared away top Democratic recruits like state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is now running for governor.

He said the committee thinks Rubio would beat Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) in the general election and won’t do anything to oppose Rubio in the primary.

“[The endorsement] doesn’t mean we’re going to be spending any money in the primary; it doesn’t mean we’re going to be saying anything bad about Marco Rubio,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn isn’t the first major GOP figure to suggest that national support of Crist was wrong-headed. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush broke his silence about the race two weeks ago and said it was “unforgivable” of Crist to support the stimulus package.

Florida is the one place in the country where an early endorsement has come back to bite Republicans. The NRSC’s support for Rep. Mark KirkMark KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE in the Illinois GOP Senate primary was vindicated when Kirk easily turned aside a nominal primary challenge last month. The committee’s other endorsements have been made in races where primary challenges don’t appear to be gaining any traction.

The Florida drama aside, things are looking up for Republicans if they play their cards right.

Cornyn said Monday that he encourages Republicans to stand resolutely against Democratic proposals. He also stood by Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) controversial recent filibuster over unemployment benefits.

Asked whether he was worried about potential charges of obstructionism, the Texas Republican said the GOP has proposed alternatives.

“We have plenty of ideas for Republicans to be for,” Cornyn said. “But there is a time to say no.”

Cornyn also defended Bunning, a man whom he and other Republicans quietly worked to push into retirement last year. Bunning recently caused a firestorm by holding up an unemployment benefits package until it was fully funded.

At the same time, Cornyn seemed to acknowledge Bunning’s stand may have come at a political cost.

“I thought Sen. Bunning had an important point,” Cornyn said. “It was lost and obscured, but it is one that I think we’ll come back to.”

Cornyn said Republican candidates would campaign heavily on the current healthcare reform proposals, with candidates asking voters whether their healthcare costs have declined under the new bills, should they pass.

He said Democratic candidates are afraid to take positions, and those who face primaries risk alienating general-election voters by tacking too far left.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Judge declares mistrial in Menendez bribery case Menendez jury deadlocked, ordered to keep trying MORE (D-N.J.) recently outlined a similar strategy for his candidates.

“These Democratic primaries on the issue of healthcare are going to be deeply damaging to their prospects in November,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn noted that the committee will continue to recruit in New York, Washington state and Wisconsin — the three states they feel can be added to the map in 2010.

Cornyn mentioned former Gov. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and former gubernatorial nominee Dino Rossi and former TV anchorwoman Susan Hutchison in Washington.

He said several “significant names” have risen to the top in the Empire State.

“The filing deadline in a lot of these places is still a ways off; we still have some notable holes in our dance card,” Cornyn said. “I think we’re going to see other candidates step up in the coming months.”