House Speaker Allan Bense stepped out of the historic Old Capitol into the 95-degree Tallahassee sunshine Wednesday and delivered an enthusiastic endorsement of Attorney General Charlie Crist in the Republican primary for governor.
"I like Charlie Crist. I respect Charlie Crist. I think he's a trustworthy candidate," said Bense, who said he made up his mind in mid-May, two weeks after the session ended. He called Crist and Tom Gallagher "two great candidates," and conceded that he and Crist don't see eye-to-eye on everything. Bense, a Panama City conservative, would be on any GOP candidate's A-list of prized endorsements.
Then a strange thing happened. Bense and Crist took a few questions (no discussion of Bense as Crist's running mate, both insisted), clasped their hands in a show of unity and rushed up the stairs. Campaign aides refused to let some reporters into the Old Capitol for a couple of minutes until Crist and Bense were sequestered in the attorney general's office.
It wasn't the heat or the humidity. Most likely, said a Republican who was there, Crist and Bense scurried away to avoid questions that would lead to criticism of Gallagher and perhaps spoil the press conference's positive message. But it was hardly the kind of openness reporters have come to expect from Crist and Bense. Blocking admittance to a public building, however briefly, is bad behavior -- not what you'd expect from a campaign with a huge lead in most polls. Bense said it wasn't his doing: "I do what I'm told," he said.
Bense called back and assiduously avoided criticism of Gallagher. He said the main reason Crist is so far ahead is that he began TV ads over Memorial Day weekend, six weeks before anyone saw a Gallagher ad.
UPDATE: Crist didn't know his own campaign had denied reporters access to a public building until we told him about it. "That's not right. I'm sorry," Crist said. End of story -- maybe. A source tells The Buzz that the Crist camp overreacted in part because of last week's scene when Crist filed his qualifying papers, reporters surrounded him, and he got a little off message and said he disagreed with President Bush's veto of a stem cell research bill. On message or off, Crist seems to handle himself pretty well without excessive handling from his handlers.