In the latest sign of turbulence for Charlie Crist's wounded U.S. Senate bid, key staffers are starting to leave the campaign.
Political director Pablo Diaz, one of the first two staff members hired for the Senate campaign, is departing at the end of the month for "a new opportunity." Sean Doughtie, a well-regarded new media consultant who had worked with Crist for years, stopped working for the campaign at the end of January.
"The campaign was going in a different direction," said Doughtie.
Meanwhile, a poll released Monday pointed to Crist's dire position six months before the Republican primary: Rubio was leading Crist by 18 percentage points — 54 percent to 36 percent — among likely Republican primary voters, according to a Feb. 18 Rasmussen Reports poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
"Rubio now carries male GOP voters by a two-to-one margin but breaks even with Crist among women," the pollster wrote in a memo. "The governor also breaks even among moderate Republicans, but conservatives in the party favor his challenger now by more than 40 points."
Some pollsters are skeptical of the kind of automated telephone surveys used by Rasmussen, but the trend is nevertheless unmistakable and ominous for a governor once seen as invincible. The average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows the former House speaker from Miami leading Crist by nearly 12 percentage points.
"Now that he's up in the polls, there will be more scrutiny and that's great," a cheerful Crist said Monday on MSNBC's Morning Joe, where he suggested that he's more conservative than Rubio. "If you want to really see somebody's character, give them power. Well, both the speaker and I have had power. While the speaker was there, he wanted to increase taxes $9 billion," Crist said, referring to Rubio's support of a plan to raise sales taxes and eliminate property taxes.
Crist, who neglected to mention that he supported a similar tax swap proposal, also noted that he vetoed more than $450 million in legislative spending initiatives passed while Rubio was speaker. "It takes leadership to do what's right every single day and not just talk about it on the campaign trail the past six months and forget what your record was for two years," the governor said, signaling the line of attack Floridians may be seeing on TV airwaves before long.
Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said the campaign is bracing for a barrage of negative attacks from Crist. "Charlie Crist has lost his credibility with Republican voters and his lead in the polls," Burgos said. "The one thing Charlie Crist has left is to use the millions he does have to smear Marco Rubio with negative and dishonest attacks, a last-gasp strategy that was on full display this morning."
In another sign of Crist's eagerness to shake up the race, he has ended his long-standing resistance to debating Rubio, who had been challenging him to debate for months. Days ago, Crist announced he wanted to debate Rubio on Meet the Press March 7 and Fox News Sunday on March 28. Rubio responded by insisting that Fox host their first debate since the network had been talking to the campaigns about it since mid December.
"I don't care, but I hope we can do Meet the Press, too. … Doesn't he want to meet the press?" Crist told the St. Petersburg Times. "Why not do both? Let's giddyup."
Crist attended a National Governor's Association meeting Monday at the White House. To reporters afterward he firmly defended his vocal support of the $787 billion federal stimulus package that has generated so much criticism from Rubio and other conservatives. "It doesn't matter at all, not one iota. He's wrong and I'm right," he said of Rubio's attacks. "We needed the money, and it saved 87,000 jobs in our state."