Crist’s list for Martinez seat grows longer

By Reid Wilson – 08/17/09 10:53 AM ET

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) will name a replacement for retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R) before Congress returns from August recess, choosing from among what is likely to be a pool of seven potential candidates.

On Friday, Crist’s office announced it had requested questionnaires from three potential candidates — ex-U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez, former Attorney General Jim Smith and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R).

“He’s seriously considering it,” Diaz-Balart spokesman Andy Gonzalez said of Crist’s request.

Crist’s communications director, Erin Isaac, said the eventual list of candidates Crist considers will be composed of “seven or so” names.

Republican sources say former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, former Sen. Connie Mack (R), ex-Rep. Clay Shaw (R) and state Sen. Daniel Webster (R) could also be on the list, along with a surprise dark horse — former Crist chief of staff George LeMieux, now the chairman of a major Florida law firm.

“There’s additional names that will be released,” Isaacs said, though she would not address LeMieux’s chances specifically. LeMieux declined to comment for this story.

In appointing a replacement for Martinez, Crist is picking the person he would replace if his own bid for Senate is successful. After a term as governor, Crist is the heavy favorite in the Republican primary for Senate, though he faces a spirited challenge from former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio (R).

Each contender has positives and negatives. Mack and Jennings are seen as senior statesmen, Republicans widely respected throughout the party. But Mack would not bring Crist any political gain, while some in Crist’s inner circle are nervous that Jennings is too close to former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), with whom Crist does not have a good relationship.

Diaz-Balart, who was born in Cuba, might help Crist with the important Republican-leaning voting bloc in his race against Rubio, but the congressman is relatively young and prevailing wisdom suggests the person Crist selects would be serving his or her last job in government.

Still, Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer — a close Crist ally — said the governor is not contemplating politics in his selection, and that Diaz-Balart would not be ending his career by accepting the temporary assignment.

“Any time the governor reaches out and asks you to consider serving in an important capacity like this, I don’t think there’s many people that would say no,” Greer said. Of Diaz-Balart, Greer added: “He’s served his party well. He’s a leader in the Hispanic community.”

Few believe Webster will wind up on the final shortlist, but as a social conservative with good relations in the party, picking him could help Crist convince those on the far right he is on their side.

“Politically, [Crist] would go a long way in appointing a social conservative,” said John Dowless, a Republican consultant and former head of the Florida Christian Coalition. “The reaction of the [social conservative] leaders would be positive, and they would view it as a positive step in their direction.”

LeMieux could bring his own baggage. While Crist would not appoint himself to the Senate seat, choosing LeMieux would be seen as the next closest step, an instance certain to anger some in the Republican Party.

But if Crist is looking for a loyalist, Republican sources said, he should look no further than LeMieux, his top aide in the attorney general’s office and the governor’s office and his former campaign manager.

Martinez announced earlier this month he would resign his seat once Crist had chosen a successor.

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