In Florida the interesting fight is between Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist.

Tallahassee--As the results start streaming in from Florida tonight, America will finally get a better handle on the state’s major intra-Republican battle. Not John McCain versus Mitt Romney--that’s a short-term engagement. The real heat is between former Governor Jeb Bush and current Governor Charlie Crist, two men who are vying for position in elections still to come.

Obvious to anyone down here is that both of these guys would love a shot at the White House. Upon leaving office, Bush immediately began the cross-country speaking tours that typically foreshadow a presidential bid. And Crist, though he’s been governor for barely a year, is known to harbor larger ambitions--and he understands that in order for him to succeed, Bush must fail. Why? Because the nation is unlikely to pick two Republicans from Florida in the next three or four elections, particularly as it has elected exactly zero in the 163 years since statehood (unless you count Andrew Jackson, the first territorial governor). That calculation would certainly explain Crist’s cautious interplay with the presidential candidates over the last few months--much of it behind-the-scenes, right up until his bombshell endorsement of McCain on Saturday night.

Bush made his choice for president clear much earlier, even though he never officially endorsed anyone, when his closest confidante and former campaign manager, Sally Bradshaw, signed up as Romney’s top Florida advisor way back in October 2006. Other Bush loyalists such as Mandy Fletcher, who had run his Foundation for Florida’s Future, followed, and soon enough the word was clear: If you cared what Jeb thought, then Romney (whose presidential campaign message--equal parts social “values” and trickle down economics--was far more in line with Jeb-ism than that of any of the other major GOP hopefuls) was your man. Everyone from Bush’s state party chairman Al Cardenas to congressman Tom Feeney jumped aboard. Even some who rolled their eyes at Romney’s quickly shifting positions wrote out $2,300 checks as a favor to Bush, one such fund-raiser acknowledged privately to me.

Crist and his people, on the other hand, have been defined by being the ones not for Mitt Romney. Had it been Rudy Giuliani neck-and-neck with Romney in the final weekend, rather than McCain, Crist almost certainly would have been at the Orange County Lincoln Day Dinner with Giuliani rather than the Pinellas County one with McCain. Crist positioned himself against Romney for political reasons, yes, but also because he’s a fundamentally different type of Republican than Jeb is. For some time, Florida has been a good microcosm for the nation--in its regional differences, its demographics, its politics--only more dependably entertaining and weird. It is fitting that it has now become a one-state study of the national Republican Party’s identity crisis.

In this, Bush represents the GOP coalition that united behind his brother’s presidential runs, the increasingly uneasy alliance of fiscal, foreign policy, and social conservatives. Crist, meanwhile, stands at the leading edge of those who believe not just that the party should move beyond that coalition, but that it must. In this sense, the McCain-Crist marriage is therefore unsurprising: Both have been the insurgents in their party at their respective levels, and both appeal to independents and even Democrats. McCain, of course, continues to rankle many in the “base” with his frequent heresies. In Pensacola last week, he was asked why evangelical Christians should support him. McCain responded not with a pat answer about abortion--which he has always had a solid record on in the Senate--but by discussing the importance of fighting Islamic extremists and devoting more attention to green initiatives.

Crist has similarly cast himself as the establishment-bucking contrarian. In the early days of the 2006 Republican primary for governor, everyone in Florida who knew anything at all just knew that the state’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher would be the Republican nominee. He had locked up a lot of Bush’s political and fund-raising talent, he had recast himself as a social conservative’s social conservative after years of live-and-let-live bachelorhood, and he was expected to raise gobs of money.

So when Crist, the sitting attorney general and former education commissioner, assembled a tiny squad of unknowns (they now cheerfully refer to themselves as the “B Team”) to outraise Gallagher and then beat him almost two-to-one with a message that was strong on anti-corporate populism and almost silent on “values”--well, that came as a shock to the Republican system. Since 1988, when Jeb organized his dad’s Florida presidential campaign, the state’s GOP machine had largely been synonymous with the Jeb Bush machine. But here, in the first post-Jeb election, Crist had won--and won big--with absolutely no help from that organization.

Which brings us to today, the second big post-Jeb Republican election. Romney, in addition to spending more on TV ads in the final weeks than any of his opponents in a state where that matters immensely, has also held the keys to the coveted Jeb machine. What will it mean if, despite that, he does not win? And if he does win, does Bush regain his crown as the top Florida Republican?

We might not have to wait long to start finding out. Whoever wins tonight will get a big leg up for the Feb. 5 contests--which could settle the nomination and simultaneously recalibrate the Bush-Crist rivalry. Bush will almost certainly be considered as a potential running mate for Romney; same with Crist for McCain. Bush’s name may be too toxic and Crist may be too green to get the nod, but whomever’s man wins will inevitably get more national attention than the other. And the antipathy between the two, which has remained largely muted, will certainly grow more open. The great Bush-Crist battles have only just begun.

S.V. Dáte has covered Florida politics for a dozen years. His most recent book is Jeb: America’s Next Bush.


By S.V. Dáte