Gov. Crist gives 'Today' a scare

Today host Matt Lauer interviews Gov. Charlie Crist on the front porch of the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall on Tuesday.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Today host Matt Lauer interviews Gov. Charlie Crist on the front porch of the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall on Tuesday.

TAMPA — Viewers likely never noticed a thing. But there was a brief moment during the Today show's highly anticipated stop at the University of Tampa on Tuesday morning when this finely oiled machine of a show nearly hit a major speed bump.

As anchor Matt Lauer dissected a new NBC News poll on Florida voters from the veranda of the University of Tampa's Plant Hall, the chair next to him sat empty. That chair was supposed to be filled by Gov. Charlie Crist, for a talk due to start in moments.

Thirty seconds before his cue, Crist strode onto the makeshift set, fiancee Carole Rome on his arm, ready to talk up GOP candidate John McCain. Crisis averted.

"Were you trying to make all my hair fall out?" Lauer asked Crist with a smile when the interview ended. Later, he could only remember that moment when asked about any problems.

"This is a piece of cake, compared to some of the other things we've done — the Olympics, or my 'Where in the World (Is Matt Lauer)' travels," he said. "You take the Today show on the road, and you want to feel that energy — feel what getting out of the studio does for you. So I focus (on the job) at moments and soak in the enthusiasm at others."

There was plenty of energy at hand for the show's broadcast, which drew an estimated 1,200 people to the fountain at the Tampa landmark by 8 a.m.

Lauer and fellow anchor Al Roker walked between the camera locations, drawing a crowd of shouting, sign-waving fans like fireflies to a porch light.

Besides Crist, the local production featured members of the university's marching band, local chefs and Lauer's interview with Hillary Clinton, who was in New York and hadn't appeared on Today since conceding defeat in the Democratic primary months ago.

Lauer admitted a visit brief as this one — they arrived just early enough Monday to have dinner at Bern's Steak House — wasn't enough to get much of a feel for a state as complex as Florida. As part of its series visiting key states in the presidential election, the show visits Virginia today and Michigan on Thursday.

"You don't learn from today's broadcast, you learn from the homework you do leading up to today's broadcast," said Lauer, citing the polling and advance research by the show's producers.

Some fans came to the campus as early as 3 a.m.; two hours later, at least 250 people had gathered for WFLA's morning remote broadcasts, including sign-waving volunteers from both the McCain and Barack Obama campaigns.

But even as Roker strode briskly through waves of people asking for a photo or autograph (thanks to allergies, he begged off holding up a guy's tiny dog), the weather anchor shrugged off any talk of annoyance.

"Look, my dad drove a bus for eight hours a day for most of my childhood in New York City," he said. "That's hard work. Here people want to take your picture and they want an autograph. That's not the worst thing in the world."

Gov. Crist gives 'Today' a scare 09/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 7:42pm]

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