Jeb throws gubernatorial backing behind Rubio

With Gov. Charlie Crist reshuffling the U.S. Senate race as an independent candidate, Republican Marco Rubio reaffirmed his frontrunner status Wednesday by announcing a widely anticipated endorsement from former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bush, a Republican icon in Florida and nationwide, was a major proponent of the controversial teacher tenure bill Crist vetoed and had called the governor’s support for President Obama’s economic stimulus package “unforgivable.” After Crist left the GOP last week to run a nonpartisan race, Bush’s involvement in the Rubio campaign was a foregone conclusion.

“The last thing the Senate needs is another politician who has to take a poll to make a decision,” Bush said. “With Marco, what you see is what you get ... . And most of all, you can trust that his principles will not change every time the political winds shift direction.”

Crist shrugged off the endorsement. “I thought that happened a long time ago,” he said, promoting a food drive in St. Petersburg.

Rubio was expected to steamroll Crist in the GOP primary, but polls show the race evening out with Crist running as an independent candidate in a general election open to all voters. U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, of Miami, is the leading Democratic candidate.

“I think Gov. Bush will play an important role on the vote-getting side and the fundraising side,” said Jorge Arrizurieta, a Rubio supporter and longtime Bush ally.

Al Cardenas, a former Florida Republican party chairman who withdrew his support from Crist, said publicity about his party switch and monitoring of the Gulf Coast oil spill is giving the governor a “temporary bump” in the polls.

Rubio and Bush are slated to campaign together for the first time Friday at a Pasco County Republican Party dinner.

“The wisdom of Gov. Bush’s timing on this is that Marco earned accolades on his own merits and emerged as a national candidate,” Cardenas said. “Now there’s going to be a lot of tough strategy meetings about how to thread the needle in a very complicated race, and Jeb’s advice will be invaluable.”

Cardenas was among 18 Republicans who demanded Wednesday that Crist return “every penny” to donors who ask for their money back, though he is not required by law. “Charlie, that is not your money,” they wrote in a harshly worded letter distributed by the Rubio campaign.

Crist has offered some donors partial refunds. And after weeks of airing television ads attacking Rubio’s use of a party credit card and political committee money, Crist said he would change the negative tone of his campaign.

“I’ve got a record and I’m going to run on it,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”