POLITICS:

Fla. governor's moves scrutinized for clues to U.S. climate debate

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is getting intense heat from his party's right wing over his support of climate legislation, fueling speculation that the popular politician may move away from "pro-green" positions that have been praised by top Democrats and environmentalists.

The pressure is rising as Crist launches his U.S. Senate campaign, trying to replace the retiring Republican one-term Sen. Mel Martinez. Though Crist remains a solid front-runner to win the nomination and the seat, some environmentalists say attacks from a conservative challenger and sharp criticism from GOP activists have forced the governor to move to the right on environmental issues.

"Many in the environmental movement think that Charlie Crist has gone from hero to villain in the last six months," said Frank Jackalone, the Sierra Club's Florida staff director. "His shift has been extremely disappointing."

Republican pressure on Crist and his response to it may be significant beyond Florida. Crist has become a national figure in Republican politics and is seen by some as a future party leader.

Crist's main challenger for his party's Senate nomination is former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. At the moment, Crist remains the overwhelming favorite, as he holds a sizable lead in both the polls and campaign funds.

But there are signs of trouble for him. The Volusia County Republican Party recently censured Crist, and a vote on a similar censure resolution deadlocked in Palm Beach County. Crist has also lost to Rubio in straw polls of GOP committee members in several other counties, and a handful of prominent conservatives both in Florida and across the country are backing the former state lawmaker.

The opposition to Crist has to do with a number of issues -- among them, his support for President Obama's economic stimulus package and a number of state appointments that have angered conservatives. But Rubio and others on the right have also gone after Crist for his support of cap-and-trade legislation, a position that has drawn vehement opposition from conservatives across the country.

"The political circumstances have changed," Rubio told the Palm Beach Post last week. "I guarantee you, he won't be touting the work he did with Sheryl Crow as part of his primary platform."

Rubio's mention of Crow, a pop singer and crusading environmentalist, reminds Republicans that Crist has been a favorite Republican among environmentalists since his election as governor in 2006. His gubernatorial campaign strongly favored action on climate and restoration of the Everglades.

And even his critics on the left acknowledge that there are a number of environmental issues on which Crist remains highly committed, with Everglades restoration sitting at the top of the list. At the same time, they say that as Crist has become more of a national figure, he has shifted away from some environmental commitments.

The most recent example of a shift: his cancellation of a high-profile state climate summit -- an event that was expected to bring climate activists from across the country. Crist cited cost as the reason for the summit's cancellation, though the anticipated event was also the subject of heavy criticism from Rubio and other conservatives.

Jackalone of the Sierra Club said scuttling the summit was only the most recent of several actions by Crist that suggested a change in the governor's environmental positions.

Last summer, when Crist was mentioned as a potential running mate to Republican presidential nominee John McCain, the Florida governor said he would be open to some oil and gas drilling off Florida, a shift from his earlier position. And some environmentalists are angry at Crist's signing of a law that they say will cripple growth-management regulations and his failure to push through the Legislature a measure that would have implemented more stringent vehicle-emission regulations.

"I think there certainly has to be some looking back and thinking, was there enough lift from the governor's office to get something passed?" said Eric Draper, deputy director of the Florida office of the National Audubon Society and a Democratic candidate for state agriculture commissioner.

Still, Draper said it is hard to tell if there was anything the governor could have done to push legislation through a state House engulfed in political scandal, with the Republican House speaker, Ray Sansom, resigning earlier this year and potentially facing a prison sentence over accusations that he received a high-paying job from a college after steering millions of dollars to that school. And Draper said he has seen few signs that Crist has changed his positions on any key issue.

"The contrast that concerns people is that there was so much hope during the first and second climate summits and so little has been actually accomplished," Draper said. "What concerns us is not that he's changing positions but that all that promise that we saw hasn't come true."

Adding, "I think Governor Crist is really committed to the issues having to do with climate change solutions; he understands, and he is committed to them."

National implications?

Crist's potential shift on environmental issues could be significant beyond Florida, as the governor may be a major player in this year's climate debate on Capitol Hill.

President Obama and other top Democrats have often pointed to Crist and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as prominent Republicans who support regulation of carbon emissions. They use the two to make the claim that cap and trade is not a partisan issue and hope they can reach out to others in the GOP.

Crist has not jettisoned his support of regulations on emissions, but he did recently give a nod to GOP claims that climate legislation represents a major tax on industry. When asked about the claim, Crist told the Miami Herald, "Well, it may be [a tax]. That may be accurate."

Draper of Audubon said that kind of statement may hint at cooling from Crist toward the specific climate bill currently being considered in Washington, though he still believes that Crist generally supports action on climate change. "He seems like he's moved on the federal climate bill," he said. "It seemed to be an attempt to kind of distance himself from the current legislative proposal and to say Florida would not benefit as much as it should from any legislative proposal."

Also, Crist is tasked with appointing a replacement for Martinez, who announced he would resign from the Senate before the end of the August recess. The individual named by Crist is expected to serve as a "placeholder" until the 2010 election.

But whoever fills that post could also cast a key vote on the climate bill that Democratic leaders hope to bring to the Senate floor this year.

Though Martinez had not been active in the climate debate this year, he did vote for cloture on a climate bill last summer and was viewed as one of the few potential Republican "yes" votes on cap and trade. The Florida Sierra Club has already launched a campaign to pressure Crist to appoint a replacement who "upholds essential clean energy values." The appointment will likely be seen as reflecting Crist's own positions on climate.

"I'm concerned we may find ourselves with a Florida senator who will be fine with offshore drilling and join the Republican filibuster on climate change," said Jackalone of the Sierra Club. "It's going to be a major litmus test for Governor Crist.

"Whoever he picks is clearly going to be working on instructions from Governor Crist, because it's going to be one of his people."

Lasting change?

Even as Crist attempts to appease his party's base, some say it remains to be seen if some of his recent moves represent a true shift in his views or are simply a temporary effort to placate the right wing of his party.

And some argue that even though Crist may have toned down some of his previous advocacy for cap-and-trade regulation as he campaigns for the Republican nomination, there is little evidence that he has significantly altered his positions.

"He's going to have to make sure that at least in the primary, he appeals in the Republican electorate -- it's a balancing act," said Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "It's going to be a bit of a tightrope for him, but Governor Crist is a pretty smart politician, and he's going to be able to achieve that balancing act.

"But we're not concerned that he's going to step off the reservation and start acting like James Inhofe."

And pundits point out that one of Crist's major political traits -- one that has been viewed as a strength by some and a weakness by others -- is an ability to read the political climate and adjust his positions accordingly.

"If there's an accusation that's stuck to Governor Crist, it's the accusation that his policy choices are driven by political concerns," said Kevin Wagner, a state politics expert at Florida Atlantic University.

Wagner also said that while Crist is certainly taking some pre-emptive measures to cut off GOP criticism, he also does not believe that Rubio represents a major challenge to Crist, pointing to the fact that many in the party understand that you generally need a moderate candidate to win in the Sunshine State.

And Wagner argued that perhaps more than in other parts of the country, Florida voters can at times place a premium on personality -- and Crist has certainly demonstrated the political skill and charisma to reach voters of different stripes, regardless of his view on the issue.

"There are politicians that the state just seems to like, and ideology and politics just doesn't seem to dent them," Wagner said. "Charlie Crist is just another example of that kind of politician."

Still, some are not as convinced that once Crist moves past the primary challenge -- and potentially goes on to represent Florida in the Senate -- he will be able or willing to reclaim his positions on environmental issues.

"Right now, I think he's catering to his political advisers," Jackalone said. "My question is, if Charlie Crist is going to be so calculated in his decisions and caters to what is political expedient at the moment, then he's going to have a hard time reasserting himself as an environmentalist if he gets to the U.S. Senate.

"Because his party is going to pressure him just as hard as they pressured Mel Martinez. He's going to have a hard time getting along with the Republican leadership if he tries to reassess himself as Charlie Crist, environmental champion."