I knew that I must have been off pretty badly when I casually wrote in this national column that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist would be a good example of a Republican that voters in critical swing states could accept in the upcoming elections for Senate and the U.S. House.
I'm used to getting a fair number of emails reacting to columns, but in this case I received hundreds. Not one was complimentary of Crist. Even more shocking was that the emails came from around the nation, and not just from Florida.
Allow me a brief aside before I discuss the recent polling of this race, including our own InsiderAdvantage poll conducted for Jacksonville's Florida-Times Union. I continue to believe that what most of the broader electorate may consider to be a "mainstream" Republican right now may often simply be the one most likely to knock off Democrats this fall.
We saw this in Massachusetts, where Scott Brown won the Senate seat and promptly sided with Democrats on some key issues. That may be little solace to devout Republicans or conservatives, but at least Brown may be an additional vote to block excessively bad significant legislation down the road.
Nevertheless, something has happened in Florida that has me recognizing that voters do not think like political strategists and analysts (and rightfully so). Gov. Crist is the tan, handsome, silver-haired politician who is known for having waltzed his way up the political food chain in the Sunshine State. Now he has gone from enjoying a comfortable lead just six months or so ago in the GOP race for U.S Senate to trailing his chief opponent by a margin of 60 percent to 26 percent, with the rest undecided. This InsiderAdvantage/Florida Times-Union survey is not alone in providing such a startling margin in the race. Just a day before our survey was released, PPP, a respected Democratic polling firm, showed a young and attractive former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio leading by well over 30 percent.
Is Crist dead in the water? Not necessarily. If his campaign uses its significant war chest and takes the unconventional move of running ads related to various accusations that have been made against Rubio, then Rubio's favorable ratings may drop and Crist could make this a closer race.
Rubio has certainly opened that door by airing television ads this week. But if Crist runs a conventional campaign, Rubio may have consolidated his lead by the spring or summer such that no amount of tough ads could save Crist by then. I still say this race will tighten up, but only if the Crist team gets moving now.
Either way, this phenomenal shift in voter sentiment in such a marquee race recalls columns I was writing last spring.
The "Tea Party" movement is for real. Moreover, it symbolizes the immense irritation among Republicans, who feel that both the Democrats and their own party have become big-spending elitists who are totally out of touch with the public.
The problem for the GOP is that a clear and strong shift to its more conservative -- and natural -- base is a gamble for the fall elections. For now, it looks like the critical swing "independent" voters have run from the Democratic Party over a series of issues, including perhaps most prominently federal spending and health care reform.
This could mean that no matter how conservative a GOP nominee for a particular U.S. Senate or congressional seat is in a competitive state or district, he or she could potentially win. In fact, the argument could be made that conservative voters will turn out so heavily that the influence of independent voters may be diluted.
Then there is the other side of the equation. Things can change quickly these days. What if unemployment drops significantly, the gross domestic product picks up, retail starts to recover and the stock market stays on its current high? Remember that many of these "swing states" voted for Barack Obama. In the case of Florida, Obama's margin of victory over John McCain was only about 1 percent, though he did win.
Of course, in Florida the leading Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate really isn't even viewed as having a chance against either Rubio or Crist. That's another issue for Crist to overcome, as it looks like the more conservative Rubio would win the general election more or less as easily as the more moderate Crist would. In other states, electability might be an important concern for a Republican nominee. Not here.
These are changing times on the American political landscape. And once again, Florida appears to be leading the way in showing us what direction the Republican Party will go.