Charlie Crist: Leading or beaten?

HOWARD MEGDAL: It seems odd to say it, given his 47-37 percent edge in the latest poll, but Charlie Crist is a decided underdog in an effort to capture the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Florida next year against Marco Rubio.

For one thing, the Republican Party has made it clear that they will be looking for the purest conservative candidates to run in 2010. Marco Rubio certainly has those credentials, and Charlie Crist knows it.

And what’s more, Rubio has a crystal-clear weapon to use against Charlie Crist in the primary: The Hug. What could possible be better for Rubio than a single image that reinforces not only that Crist is an Obama-loving centrist, but also the thinly-concealed rumors concerning Crist’s sexuality?

Crist has more money, but that doesn’t really matter- Rubio has enough, with more than a $1 million haul last quarter alone. If Crist ads run multiple times for every one of Rubio’s, but Rubio has the hug, who’s going to win that fight in a Republican party striving for purity?

Crist is still popular enough statewide, with a decent enough war chest, that he can go Joe Lieberman and win as a third party candidate, potentially.

But this Republican primary race is going Marco Rubio’s way, barring some pretty remarkable changes in either the electorate or Rubio himself.

CHRIS PUMMER: Its hard to characterize a double-digit lead in the polls as uncomfortable because it’s not. Charlie Crist is squirming more because of the media spotlight that’s focusing on him than any groundswell of conservative sentiment likely to drive him from the race for a Senate seat in Florida.

Make no mistake, Crist has had a rough go of it in the media the last six months, especially with conservative activists in the Republican party making noise about “gunning for him” in their quest to oust moderates from the GOP.

But we also know that, despite a shrinking lead in the polls against Rubio, Crist was never going to win the primary by 30 points. And he still has every advantage, from a still-wide margin in the polls to an overwhelming amount of cash on hand.

Considering the national fervor over a conservative insurgent candidate for a House seat in NY-23, and Rubio’s year spent as a darling of right-wing talk radio and blogs, it’s probably fair to start asking why Rubio hasn’t pulled ahead in the polls.

Rubio can’t keep saying it’s because he doesn’t have the name recognition yet. Everyone who’s politics are closely aligned with his has surely heard of him by now.

The reason is more likely that Florida’s GOP hasn’t shrunken to an ultra-conservative rump party as it has in other states.

For most of this year Rubio and his backers have been taking their shots at Crist, but can they keep eroding the popular governor’s support once he opens his war chest to start slinging some mud right back?

With months to go before voters actually choose between the two, the race is still wide open. But to call Crist an underdog at this point is either defeatism by those who remain hopeful for a comeback of GOP moderates, or premature self-congratulatory vanity by conservative activists.

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