Watching the Florida Republican primary from afar has been a fascinating exercise. The sudden fall of Charlie Crist  – from being a seemingly unbeatable candidate with 5 statewide races under his belt and an endless Rolodex of high-dollar donors to political trainwreck – has been noted, well, everywhere, as has the emergence of new Republican rockstar Marco Rubio.

The stars have rarely aligned so well for a candidate (though Marco Rubio’s hard work at the grass roots, his aggressive social networking strategy and his compelling personal narrative have certainly helped) and the Republican primary situation in Florida was literally not imaginable a year ago, it looks more and more inevitable that the long run of Charlie Crist is nearly over. How very different from 2006: Florida looked like another state moving from Red to Purple To Blue.

We were in a post-partisan era, remember?  The future of the GOP was guys like Charlie Crist: moderate, soft around the edges and nice to a fault.  The era of ideology was behind us. Charlie was hailed as a future Vice Presidential pick…maybe even a Presidential contender in 2016.

So what happened?

Beyond the moment of the famous hug, Charlie Crist underestimated the permanent symbolic damage backing the Obama stimulus package would do.  In an age where empowered conservatives dominate the social networks that define the poltical landscape more completely than the friendly press he’s always enjoyed, he was blind and deaf to the damage he caused.  He’s rarely been held accountable before either in a campaign or in government, and now he faces angry Republicans, active Tea Party voters and independents for whom the Obama stimulus is a unmitigated failure…and on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and blogs, they’re holding him responsible for his betrayal of conservative principles.

More baffling, Crist keeps digging in deeper, defending his decision to back the stimulus. These decisions tell me that his mindset is stuck in 2006, when the conventional wisdom predicted that Republican leaders would come from the John McCain-Lindsey Graham wing of the party and that robust conservatism was a thing of the past.

But 2010 is the year where fiscal conservatism made a comeback, and Republican voters are looking for someone to go to Washington and tell Barack Obama and the Democrats, “Enough!” We saw it in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts, and I think we’re seeing it again in Florida more clearly than in any other primary.

One observer said that because Charlie Crist could win elections in “purple” Florida that GOP voters looked the other way when it came to Crist.  But recent polls show both Crist and Rubio beat Democrat Kendrick Meek.  So if the growing conservative movement (and Republican and independent voters) can have both – ideological strength and a win in the general election – why not go with the one they love?  There’s no need for the bait-and-switch of putting out a nice-guy moderate: the GOP base and Florida independents are leaning strongly to the right this cycle, and Marco fits the bill perfectly.

Charlie has always grabbed and run on a popular issue: crime in the 1990s, education in the 2000s, climate change in 2006 and seemed to be setting himself up as the “I can work with Barack” candidate for 2010…until Obama’s poll numbers came crashing to earth and took Charlie with them.

Conservative ideological intensity — particularly on the fiscal side — is back in style, and there is no more powerful symbol of that this year than whether or not you oppose the Obama agenda.  Crist’s explicit endorsement of one of the three major legs of the Obama agenda – and his initial reluctance to talk straight on his position on health care — cemented his image with Republican voters. Marco Rubio, a man who from the beginning has stuck with his message of fiscal discipline and real conservative principals was the obvious, inevitable counterweight.

A political hermaphrodite, Crist now wants to be a born-again beacon of conservative purity. His campaign is desperate and attacking wildly…nitpicking Rubio’s American Express statements when he should have been talking opposition to Obama. The Governor clearly has very few ideas left and he’s going to throw everything at the wall he can. Will it damage Marco?  Yes, because negatives hurt, especially when echoed by some plainly pro-Crist voices in the Florida media.  Are they enough for Crist to win a primary? Almost certainly not.

No matter how many times he say’s he’s a strong conservative, the current political climate and that iconic picture have permanently and profoundly locked in his image with conservatives. He’s fighting the battle that won’t help the Republican Party or the conservative cause.  The conservatives are gone, and every poll proves it. And conservatives are the ones who come out on Primary Day. An independent campaign will fail, fast and hard as Crist burns through his money with no hope of replacing it. Every dollar spent on Charlie Crist is a dollar to Meek.

Charlie Crist was always a great campaigner, but never a great leader. He can’t understand why there’s no U-turn on the road he took, but unless he decides soon to leave the race with some dignity, what reputation he has left will be squandered as a man who didn’t realize that his time in political life had come…and gone.