The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

New book details the intrigue behind Charlie Crist's John McCain endorsement

10

January

Cristendorse Remember how Rudy Giuliani's campaign was livid over Charlie Crist's surprise and crucial endorsement of John McCain two years ago? The juicy new campaign book Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin features some great new, fly-on-the wall detail about the intrigue behind Charlie Crist's endorsement. Buzz obtained an advance look before it hits the book shelves. Here's a sneak peak:

McCain had endorsed Crist in his primary fight; Giuliani had remained neutral. Crist expressed gratitude to McCain on a regular basis, including several reaffirmations of a promise to endorse McCain’s presidential bid. “Don’t worry, I’ll be there at the right time,” Crist assured him.

But now that McCain was tanking, Crist seemed to be reconsidering his options. “I campaigned my a-- off for him,” McCain groused to his lieutenants. “And now that f---er is not going to keep his end of the bargain.”

McCain was right to be worried, for even Crist’s closest allies often said of him, “Charlie is all about Charlie.” Crist’s political team was aggressive and demanding. Jim Greer, his handpicked Florida state party chairman, started actively exploring what the governor could receive in return for his endorsement, suggesting to Giuliani directly that a “right of first refusal” on the VP slot might do the trick. The Charlie Bazaar was open for business.

In July, '07, Crist visited with Giuliani in the Hamptons: “I’d like to support you,” Crist said.

The next day, Giuliani shared the news with his aide Tony Carbonetti. “I think we got him; it went very well,” Giuliani said.

Carbonetti was familiar enough with Giuliani’s lexicon to know what that meant: Rudy thought it was a done deal. Seeing Giuliani’s strong poll numbers in Florida, Crist had apparently concluded that Rudy was the horse to ride. Carbonetti, a no-nonsense fixer who’d been Rudy’s chief of staff at City Hall, followed up with Crist’s main political guy, George LeMieux, flying to Tallahassee to meet with him and plan the endorsement.

Plans were made to roll out the endorsement of Crist's endorsement. Fast forward to October, '07, when McCain swings through Tallahassee: A fund-raising event had been set up for him on October 2 at the Governors Club in Tallahassee. As long as he was in the neighborhood, he arranged to pay a call on the governor himself. If he couldn’t get Crist to endorse him, at least he might be able to hold him neutral.

One of McCain’s top Florida supporters, Kathleen Shanahan, was with him when he finished up the donor event. On the way to the statehouse, she verbally took McCain by the lapels and shook him. She was worried that if she didn’t say something, McCain, being McCain, would almost certainly sit down with Crist, make small talk, tell some jokes, and waste the moment.

“Don’t go over there and bull---- your way through this meeting,” Shanahan said. Crist was under all sorts of pressure from Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson, and there was no telling which way he might jump. “You have to be serious; you’ve got to tell him why you need Florida, why you need Charlie, why you can win.”

“I hear you,” McCain assured her.

McCain marched into Crist’s office and got down to business. He followed Shanahan’s script to the letter. No one likes Rudy Giuliani more than me, McCain said, but he’s not going to be the nominee of this party, and you’d be wasting your support if you endorsed him. There’s no way he’s going to win. You should support me. I’m going to win this nomination. My campaign is revived.

Afterward, Crist told his advisers that he cared about McCain, was grateful for his backing in the governor’s race. He might not endorse John in the end, Crist said, but otherwise, the senator’s speech had convinced him. He intended to remain neutral—for now.

The endorsement:
But after all the hide-and-seek of 2007,Crist seemed to have decided to sit out the primary. “I’m not going to endorse anybody; whoever’s going to win is going to win,” he told his adviser LeMieux on the Friday night before the Tuesday primary. The assurance quickly went out from Cristworld to the Republican candidates:

Charlie wasn’t going to put his finger on the scale.

The next day, however, Crist, out sailing with his fiancée, felt a pang of conscience. The governor’s internal polling showed McCain slipping as Romney poured money into the state. Crist harkened back to the endorsement McCain had given him in 2006. The guy’s been really good to me, he thought. I can’t leave my friend behind.

The following night, McCain was in St. Petersburg for the Pinellas County Lincoln Day Dinner. Crist was slated to introduce him. Upstairs in McCain’s suite at the Hilton where the event was being held, he asked John for a word alone—and told him he would be endorsing him at the dinner downstairs in a few minutes.

Crist’s intervention propelled McCain to a five-point win in Florida. The other Republican candidates and their advisers may have seen Charlie as a liar, a manipulator, and a no-account betrayer, but he was all right with John. To Crist’s betrothed on primary night, McCain said, “God bless him.”

 

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 2:13pm]

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