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« Hoyer: Process Is Interesting To Us, Not Americans | Blog Home Page | RNC Poll Warns Dems On Health Care Vote »

Is New Scrutiny Of Rubio Too Late To Save Crist?

One of the first public polls released after Charlie Crist entered the Florida Senate race last May showed the governor with a 35 point lead. Ten months later, two polls in as many days showed Marco Rubio with a lead of over 30 points. Though five months remain until the GOP primary, Crist's campaign is now dogged by doubts about his viability even as he's taken a more aggressive posture against his rival.

"The conventional wisdom in Tallahassee is that it's beyond the point of return and there's almost nothing Charlie can do," Adam Smith, political editor for the St. Petersburg Times, told RCP Tuesday. But allies of Crist, he adds, maintain that "it's not too late, he's got a lot of money, and Marco Rubio is not a perfect candidate by any stretch."

Smith says that having detailed last week new questions about Rubio's political spending as he climbed through the ranks of the Florida Republican Party. This after statements were leaked documenting how Rubio used a Florida GOP credit card during his time as Florida House Speaker. Shortly after those documents were released, Crist seemed happy that his rival was finally getting serious scrutiny.

"Welcome to the NFL," he said. "If you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen."

His campaign's frustrations over what they saw as a soft touch with Rubio are reminiscent of how the Hillary Clinton campaign saw coverage of Barack Obama. But again, analysts say this race appears unlikely to shift from being a referendum on the incumbent governor, with likely primary voters unlikely to forgive Crist for his original sin of supporting the stimulus.

"It's fascinating to see how public opinion has shifted so drastically among likely Republican voters. It's almost unprecedented," said Daniel Smith, professor of political science at the University of Florida. "Republicans are still in a honeymoon period with Marco Rubio. They don't know much about him and his leadership role in the House. But I'm not sure how much that the mud that the Crist campaign is throwing and what the media is digging up is going to hurt him."

If Crist is to change the dynamic, he may have just a narrow window in the near future to do so. He's expected to launch his first television ads soon (Rubio has already gone on the air). And he has a bit more of a megaphone now in Tallahassee as the legislature is in session. Crist isn't helped by the fact that the session focuses in large part on the economic woes in the state that are just as much to blame for his predicament as the infamous presidential hug.

"For all the attention on the tea partiers, I think Charlie's also lost a lot of the independents -- where he was strongest -- just on his decision to run for the Senate," Smith said. "He just miscalculated how that would go over with the electorate, which sees him as bailing on the job before it was done."

Democrats believe the new revelations about Rubio are just the tip of the iceberg, and now feel increasingly optimistic about their chances of running a competitive general election campaign against either potential nominee. But Rubio, during a trip to South Carolina, told CNN that recent revelations were just an attempt to "divert attention away from the central issues of this campaign."