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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Crist, Rubio Ad War

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist once looked like he’d surely get the GOP nomination in the race to replace outgoing Sen. Mel Martinez. But it’s the former Florida state House speaker, Republican Marco Rubio, who’s currently positioned as the front-runner.

With several months to go before the August primary, Crist released his first TV ad last week hitting his chief opponent for having been a "registered lobbyist" and using "Republican political donations on his lavish lifestyle."

It’s true that Rubio was a registered lobbyist in Florida’s Miami-Dade County for several years — the county’s lobbyist database shows that Rubio registered as such seven times between 1997 and 2002. But the Rubio campaign says he wasn’t a "lobbyist" in the traditional sense of the word. His campaign issued this statement on the subject to the Miami Herald‘s "Naked Politics" blog, which had written about Rubio’s "lobbying" days:

Rubio campaign statement: The reason Marco Rubio never spoke about his “lobbying” is because he was never a “lobbyist,” in the Tallahassee-influence-peddling sense of the word that Charlie Crist is all too familiar with. Marco Rubio worked as an attorney for law firms that did Request for Proposal (RFP) and land use work in Miami-Dade County. Out of an abundance of caution, law firms engaged in this type of work often register their lawyers as lobbyists. In fact, all lawyers representing clients on land use matters are supposed to register as lobbyists. While Marco worked on land use contracts and RFPs, he never met with elected officials to influence them on behalf of clients.

As far as the claim that Rubio spent GOP political donations on "his lavish lifestyle," that’s based on a recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald analysis titled, "Marco Rubio’s lavish rise to the top," which looked at Rubio’s use of a Republican Party of Florida credit card, and purchases he made with funds from two Republican political committees he organized.

The Times/Herald reports don’t detail all of the "personal expenses" that Rubio made with the credit card, but they do mention grocery bills, wine, a $134 trip to a Miami barber, and about $1,000 in payments to a Tallahasee, Fla., property management group that were charged to the party’s card. The Times/Herald analysis also found that Rubio charged thousands of dollars in restaurant bills to the party, even though he received a per diem for meals and lodging from the state.

Rubio claims to have repaid all personal expenses — about $16,000 — he made with the party-issued credit card. But the Times/Herald analysis notes that its reporters "found some he did not cover." And the papers quote a party spokeswoman who said personal expenses are not supposed to be charged to party-issued credit cards.

The Rubio campaign has responded with its own set of ads that claim the governor’s attacks aren’t on the up-and-up.

The ads refer to an Associated Press piece by political writer Brendan Farrington that is labeled "analysis." Farrington wrote that "[m]any of Crist’s attacks [on Rubio] are exaggerated, take words out of context, aren’t true or over the top." Farrington mentions a few examples of such claims, including the ones about Rubio being a lobbyist and his use of the Republican Party credit card, but the writer doesn’t specify which claims he views as being not true, over the top, or out of context.

What the Rubio ad also doesn’t say is that Farrington actually called out Rubio for resorting to similar tactics as Crist, but to a lesser degree. "Rubio has also exaggerated or taken out of context some of Crist’s statements or actions, but not to the same extent," Farrington wrote. "Rubio hasn’t been entirely innocent in his attacks on Crist." (Farrington’s piece is no longer available on Google for reasons that are unclear, according to an AP editor in Florida.)