Crist's middle road approach fine with RNC chairman

Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 4:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 4:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON Florida's Republican Party may have steered toward the political middle, and Gov. Charlie Crist may have caused some discomfort when he sided with Democratic President Barack Obama's stimulus plan, but that's OK with new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

"When I was a state chairman (in Maryland), I didn't want the RNC telling me how to run my state, I didn't want them telling me how to run my party," Steele said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I very much respect the strategies that the individual parties take that help them reach voters, touch voters, talk to voters, connect and ultimately get their vote."

Crist raised some eyebrows within the party by appearing with Obama to promote the $787 billion stimulus plan that was opposed by all House Republicans and all but three Senate Republicans. Steele said he met with Crist last Monday and asked him about his support considering the strong Republican opposition.

"What I loved about him, and I loved about his answer, was that he was very forthright about it. He didn't try to shuck and jive and hem and haw. He looked me in the eye and said 'As the chief office holder of this state, the governor of this state, I have to be mindful of what's important to help my folks, who are going through some tough times right now,'" Steele said.

But yes, there was a level of discomfort.

"It is a judgment call that a chief executive has to take, and what makes it sting maybe a little bit more, or feel a little bit uncomfortable, is that this package is being introduced by a Democrat president who many of us at the national level in particular believe has put in place a spending boondoggle, but he's put the appropriate amount of sauce in there for states to get their support," Steele said.

Steele, though, cannot argue with what Crist, and the Republican Party as a whole, has done in Florida.

Republicans nationally have lost control of the House, Senate and White House. While Obama carried Florida, Crist has a high approval rating and Republicans have strong majorities in the House and Senate. Part of Crist's popularity is his habit of working with Democrats and talking more about pocketbook issues instead of conservative social issues like abortion, gay marriage and guns.

Steele said there's nothing wrong with that approach.

"Florida is not the red state that Alabama is and it's not the red state that Mississippi is. It may be a red state, but it's a different hue of red. I applaud Gov. Crist for having the foresight to appreciate that," Steele said. "A lot of folks believe that if we're not constantly beating that drum on one or other social issues, that we're somehow less Republican and my argument is quite the opposite. The beauty of our party is that we appreciate and know what we believe. It's core to who we are, and we have the flexibility and dexterity to speak to people on a broad array of issues."

As for Gov. Crist's future political plans, Steele was as noncommittal as Crist, who many speculate may run for U.S. Senate next year instead of a second term. Republican Sen. Mel Martinez has said he won't seen a second term.

"Gov. Crist would be a phenomenal asset to the Republican leadership in the Senate, but there are others as well who would be equally exciting to watch on that Senate floor," Steele said. "We chatted a little bit about that and he's clearly working through his options and his thoughts and what he needs to take into consideration, but I think Florida would be well served with the governor as governor or the governor as senator."

And in 2012, the year of the next presidential election?

"By the time we get to 2012 several national figures will emerge that will be a part of carrying that message and become the drum major for the party and helping us carry that message. (Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin) will likely be one of them. Gov. Crist will likely be one of them. Certainly (Alabama) Gov. (Mark) Sanford, (Louisiana) Gov. (Bobby) Jindal will likely be one of them," Steele said.

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