Independent's Eye by Joe Gandelman

Pity that poor animal called the rhino: a mostly herbivorous creature highly sought after by humans who want to kill it for its valuable horn. A rhino is the ultimate big-game trophy.

Cartoon by Jeff Parker - Florida Today (click to reprint)

Cartoon by Jeff Parker - Florida Today (click to reprint)

This year, more than ever, conservative Republicans and Tea Party members have made no secret about the fact that they're hunting for RINOS: so-called Republicans In Name Only -- which is another way to say "Republican moderates." And back in April it looked like they had bagged a BIG trophy. In Florida.

One-time Republican rising star Gov. Charlie Crist seemingly hit the political skids, announcing a path that many conservatives felt reflected political cowardice: faced with polls showing he'd lose big in the Florida Republican Senate primary for not being conservative enough and too bipartisan, Crist announced that he'd run as an independent. Conservative talk show hosts, bloggers and pundits said it was good riddance to yet another GOPer who couldn't be trusted. This started a new career as rising Republican star for Crist's political conservative nemesis, Marco Rubio, Florida's former House speaker. Some suggested Rubio was the party's future.

And, indeed, moderates were "“and are "“ on the run. The late 20th century Northeast "Country Club" Republicans barely exist now, their ranks battered by the angry conservative political winds just surely as once-stable country clubs were battered by the Great Recession. In Congress, the race is on among the left and right for the most polarizing, exaggeration-laced sound bites and the Senate's 60 vote rule batters the political center in America's new Filibusterocracy.

But something may have changed.

There's good news for us mushy, wishy-washy, weak, uninformed and ignorant moderates, independents and centrists (if I left out one of the adjectives hurled by people of both parties who don't like people without a D or an R in front of their names, just let me know).

A new Quinnipiac University poll finds Crist leading Rubio 37% to 32% if billionaire Jeff Greene is on the ballot. If Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek is on the ballot, Crist wins, 39%-33%, against Rubio. There are many theories why but perhaps it's due to  (1) Crist picking up Democratic cross-overs (2) Crist picking up some Republicans who don't agree with shrinking their party's tent (3) Some Republicans are simply not tea (or Kool Aid) drinkers.

If Crist pulls off a victory, it'll mean the center isn't totally dead and that voters won't always opt for the candidate who most comprehensively regurgitates Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh monologues. Still if Crist wins, new challenges will begin. Consider:

Minnesota's charismatic Jesse Ventura was not a stellar Governor. Have you heard anyone screaming  "Ventura for President!!" lately?

California's Arnold Schwarzenegger proved to be a political muscle-head -- just as bad a Governor as the man he replaced, Democrat Gray Davis. How many GOPers are still clamoring to change constitution to allow a foreign born person to run for President? These days Republicans are clamoring to change the constitution to bar illegal immigrant children from becoming American citizens.

Conservatives used to insist Arizona Sen. John McCain was a RINO. But McCain has proven that he is a chameleon "“ changing his colors with the (political) season. Once a Profile in Courage, the 2010 McCain is a Profile in Expediency.

Joe Lieberman was exiled by his party's liberal wing but triumphed as an independent. He's locked in a perpetual grudge match with Democratic Party liberals. Still, if the GOP gains Senate seats or Senate control, his clout will grow.

So if Crist wins, it'll beg a series of questions -- and begin a series of political challenges.

The only certainty is this: a jungle rhino can be fierce and formidable "“ charging at 35 mph. If the polls continue to trend this way for Crist, on Election Day Republican conservatives could wake up feeling as if they've been hit by a political RINO.


Copyright 2010 Joe Gandelman

Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN's John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at [email protected] and can be booked to speak at your event at Follow Joe Gandelman on Twitter at