Changing Faces: John McCain and Charlie Crist Transformed In Senate Races

A tale of two Republicans shifting to win in November.

August 19, 2010, 1:52 PM

Aug. 23, 2010 -- Voters across the political spectrum are frustrated with the economy and fed up with Washington and Congress, a situation that has led to an unprecedented level of political transformation this midterm election cycle.

Tuesday's primaries in Arizona and Florida showcase the situation and give case studies in two very different ways to deal with tough primary -- If you can't join them, leave them.

Arizona's contest is notable for the dramatic transformation of Sen. John McCain, who in years past worked across the aisle on issues like climate change legislation and comprehensive immigration reform, but after his bruising loss in the 2008 Presidential election, has taken a harder line and sided more frequently with rank and file Republicans.

Meanwhile in Florida, Republican Governor Charlie Crist wants to be a Senator, but it became clear he was too moderate for Republicans in the state after he embraced president Obama's economic stimulus plan in early 2009. A challenge from the right seemed sure to upend Crist's ambitions. So he left the Republican party altogether. He won't be on the ballot in any primary when party voters in Florida select their candidates Tuesday.

The transformations have so far paid off for both men. In Arizona, McCain is now the clear frontrunner in the primary after spending $20 million. In Florida, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Crist leading both Republican former state House Speaker Marco Rubio and the two Democrats vying for a spot on the ballot in November – Rep. Kendrick Meek and billionaire Jeff Greene.

ABC's Jonathan Karl asked McCain about the perception that he was changing his positions for the primary back in March.

"What happened to the old John McCain? The John McCain that worked with Democrats, that reached across party lines, you know, was a thorn in the side of his own party, what happened?" Karl asked.

"Funny thing – I heard that in the Presidential campaign, too," McCain said. "Then I heard it in the primary. Who was the old John McCain? The old John McCain and the present John McCain, I fight for what I believe in. I'm a fighter. I enjoy it."

Watch that interview here.

McCain, Crist Take Opposite Approaches in Senate Primaries

McCain's evolving positions on some issues are hard to deny.

Take immigration. In 2008, in the heat of the presidential campaign, McCain told Univision that his plan for the Mexican border did not include "fences and walls," but facing a tough Republican primary challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, McCain cut a television ad in which he walked along a remote border fence with an Arizona sheriff and said, "Complete the dang fence."

McCain had cosponsored comprehensive immigration reform legislation with Sen. Ted Kennedy in years past, but now argues that the borders must be better secured before a more comprehensive solution can be pursued. He was one of a handful of Republicans to vote with most Democrats in favor of comprehensive immigration reform legislation supported by President Bush in 2005 and 2006.

Immigration is not the only area where McCain's position has gone from independence to the Republican party line. He supported a "cap and trade" system for dealing with climate change as recently as 2008, when he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that it would stimulate a green economy.

He coauthored multiple cap and trade bills in the past. But during this Congress he rejected Democrats' proposals for a cap and trade bill, switching to the Republican talking points that those bills would be too much of a tax burden – "cap and tax," he called them.

McCain was one of two Republicans to vote against the first iteration of President Bush's tax cuts. By 2006 he was voting to sustain them. And now, he thinks they should be extended. Democrats seem prepared to let the tax cuts expire.

McCain says he has not flip-flopped.

"I have not changed in my positions. I know how popular it is for the Eastern press to paint me as having changed positions. That's not true. I know they're going to continue to say it. It's fundamentally false," he told a reporter this week.

McCain, Crist Fight for Senate Seats

Charlie Crist's transformation in Florida went in the other direction, but has been no less remarkable. Faced with a challenge by former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who excited conservative and Tea Party Republicans, he left the party altogether.

Rubio pilloried Crist for embracing President Obama's economic policies, particularly the $836 billion stimulus bill, early on, and it quickly became clear that if Crist wanted to see his name on the ballot in November, it would not be as a Republican. He left the party in April.

Since then he has moved further to the middle; his new constituency is independents and Democrats. He vetoed a bill that would have tied teacher pay to performance, endearing himself to teachers' unions.

While Crist still describes himself as "pro-life," He vetoed a bill that would have forced women seeking abortions to obtain an ultrasound. In previous years he had endorsed much stricter abortion language.

He now supports repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays in the military and softened his stance on other gay rights issues, like adoption.

Crist has also changed his tune on offshore oil drilling and has proposed a state constitutional ban, although the Gulf oils spill also played a role in that switch.

Crist has faced additional challenges since he left the Republican party. He now lacks the important structure for fundraising and getting out the vote that parties provide. But he is also unyolked at a time when political parties are not held in high esteem by many Americans.

"One of the more difficult things to do in politics is to win a primary contest as a moderate. On the whole, primary voters – Republican and Democrat – are wary of any candidate who strays from the party's core ideological moorings," said ABC News' Political Director Amy Walter.

McCain, Crist, Others Reverse Course in Senate Primaries

It looks like McCain will win this fight in Arizona. Recent polls have shown him with a comfortable lead over Hayworth.

"I know I have to earn every vote. Too many incumbents believe that people will be grateful to them. That's not why they vote for people," said McCain.

Tuesday's primaries highlight Florida and Arizona, but there are flip-flops aplenty elsewhere. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for instance, was caught in a 1993 video advocating to do away with birthright citizenship, a new hot-button issue for Republican conservatives. He now calls that proposal a low point in his career.

His challenger for Senate from Nevada, Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite, wrote Reid a letter in 1993, before she was even a Republican and called on him to "STOP FUNDING THE WASTEFUL SOCIAL AND ENTITLEMENT PROGRAMS." (emphasis hers).

Today her campaign commercial pledges to save Social Security.