There have been many pictures taken during Florida road trips that have come back to haunt those on the wrong side of the camera. But not since the 2005 College Spring Break Edition of Girls Gone Wild has anyone in the Sunshine State regretted being photographed more than Florida Governor Charlie Crist does today.
Because it was one year ago—February 10, 2009—that Florida's tan and perpetually sunny chief executive wrapped his arms around the leader of the free world and squeezed him like a Florida orange. Today it is simply known as "the hug." And more than any other picture it has become the iconic image in the U.S. Senate Republican primary battle between Crist and Marco Rubio, the Conservative upstart and Tea Party darling who has gone from barely registering in the polls to enjoying a double-digit lead.
And if indeed Marco Rubio does go on to defeat Crist—an outcome that seemed laughably remote six months ago—the defining moment of the campaign will be that embrace between Crist and President Barack Obama in Fort Meyers.
"It's part of a bigger problem in American politics of people willing to say and do anything to get elected," Rubio said. "And people can see that."
At the time the president was stumping for his $787 billion stimulus plan and since he wasn't finding much Republican support in Washington, he flew to the West Coast of Florida where Crist greeted him with open arms. Both men were at the height of their political popularity.
"We know that it's important that we pass a stimulus package,'' Crist was quoted in press accounts at the time as saying. "This is not about partisan politics. This is about rising above that, helping America and reigniting our economy."
Since that day, Rubio, a Jeb Bush protégé and former Speaker of the Florida House, has done everything he could to keep Crist and Obama in a perpetual state of embrace. His very first attack ad against Crist—launched moments after Crist announced he was running for Senate last May—used one of the hundreds of pictures taken that day. The photograph the Rubio campaign selected showed the president, eyes closed and lips pursed, leaning in toward the governor, mouth slightly agape and wide-eyed with anticipation. As ominous music plays, an announcer warns that, "Today, too many politicians embrace Washington's same old broken ways."
Rubio even launched a website www.charlieandobama.com, which simply showed another picture of the president and the governor leaning in for the hug. The caption: "Get the picture?" The site then offered a link to donate to Rubio's campaign.
To commemorate both the hug and the Crist's support for the stimulus, Rubio has events planned in Fort Meyers, where he will join former House Majority Leader Dick Armey for an address to Armey's FreedomWorks political action committee. In anticipation of today's event, the Rubio campaign started a fundraising drive on February 1, with the goal of collecting $787,000 by today. They have been asking donors to log onto a new website— www.stimulusbomb.com—and donate either $7.87 or $78.70 or even $787. Needless to say, the website features a picture of the hug.
For Rubio, the steady, unrelenting focus on Crist's support for the stimulus has been the key to his rise in the polls, which now show him ahead of the governor anywhere from 3 to 14 points. Crist’s sudden plummet has been so severe it’s sparked speculation that he might run as an independent, or even a Democrat. For his part, the governor has been as dismissive of the latest polling as possible, telling the Miami Herald, "I'm not really concerned about poll numbers. I’m concerned about people. I don’t have the luxury of going around the state and politicking all day. I’m going to do my job.”
But just as important to the rhythm of the race has been Crist's rather bizarre response to the attacks.
By October, with Rubio rising in the polls and now realizing that the hug was a mistake, Crist avoided the president entirely when Obama made a two-day swing through the state. At one point Crist told reporters he had no idea Obama was in Florida or what cities he was visiting. "First I've known of it," Crist told reporters. The White House then released emails showing that they tried to coordinate a visit between Obama and Crist and the governor's office declined. Crist decided instead to attend a party at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
In November, after making numerous statements supporting the stimulus—and even signing a letter endorsing it—Crist went on national television and denied he campaigned for the stimulus bill.
In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Crist declared: "I didn't endorse it. I didn't even have a vote on the darned thing. But I understood that it was going to pass and I wanted to be able to utilize it for the benefit of my fellow Floridians." He went on to attack Obama for thinking that "everything we need to do for every problem that comes along is spend more money and that's just wrong."
No sooner had Crist finished his interview with Blitzer than both the Rubio campaign and Democrats pounced. The Pulitzer Prize-winning website, PolitiFact.com, which is run by the St. Petersburg Times, printed a dozen of Crist's previous statements supporting the stimulus and gave the governor its dreaded "Pants on Fire" rating on its Truth-o-Meter.
At the time, Rubio told me Crist's effort to rewrite history was almost as damaging as his support for the stimulus. "It's part of a bigger problem in American politics of people willing to say and do anything to get elected," Rubio said. "And people can see that."
Last month when Obama flew into Tampa following the State of the Union speech, Crist, not wanting to seem out of touch, decided to greet the president when he arrived. Political reporters anxiously documented the encounter and analyzed the video with the same intensity as historians have shown in dissecting the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination.
Obama leaned in down and to the left-the left!—extending his hand to Crist. Although somewhat grainy and shot from a distance, and the angle partially obscured by other dignitaries, there was no hug, reporters noted. Just a handshake. A handshake that Politico declared lasted 27 seconds.
Unfortunately for the Rubio campaign, the web address www.27seconds.com is already taken by a graphic design firm.
Jim DeFede, a longtime South Florida investigative reporter, works for CBS4 News in Miami.