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Crist swaying with the winds

If John McCain pulls off a victory in Florida Tuesday, he can thank Gov. Charlie Crist. He delivered a timely endorsement just before the Florida primary that McCain won, giving him the Republican nomination.

If Barack Obama pulls off a victory in Florida Tuesday, he too can thank Charlie Crist.

Lobbied by a Democratic legislator, Crist, a former walk-on quarterback, "called an audible" and quickly extended the hours of early voting at a crucial moment. He said it was the right thing to do.

It's obviously not in his party's interests. If it were, GOP leaders would have been demanding it.

Democrats love early voting; Republicans favor absentee ballots. Crist's secretary of state, Kurt Browning, was on record as saying there was no need to extend early voting, despite a call by Florida's Democratic members of Congress to do so.

There was Crist, governing by pure instinct again.

He said his decision — the result of a brief, intense effort by Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and TV images of long lines of people waiting to vote — was not motivated by partisan politics.

That's obvious. In fact, you can't always tell from a distance whether Crist is a Republican or a Democrat. Maybe that's his great skill.

If Obama wins Florida Tuesday, Crist will instantly become the red governor of a blue state, at least in the eyes of the national media whose attention he craves.

He faces re-election in two years. An Obama win in Florida will energize Democrats here as never before.

So watch for Crist to inch toward the left a little more, to the consternation of his Republican base. (Remember, about half of all Democrats in the Quinnipiac University poll say he's doing a good job.)

Crist has a keen sense of which way the political winds are blowing, and at the moment they are not blowing in the Republicans' direction. In addition, Crist intensely dislikes that over-the-top "domestic terrorist" talk that has dominated this campaign.

Yet Crist can still appear before a national TV audience, as he did Friday on MSNBC's Morning Joe, and predict McCain will win Florida. It was a somewhat convincing recitation of Republican Party talking points.

Shockingly, Crist also said that even troubled Republican members of Congress in Florida would win, despite news accounts and polls showing at least three of them will lose. The marked men: Tom Feeney, Ric Keller and one of the Diaz-Balart brothers.

"We're swimming against a tough tide this year. Everybody knows that," Crist said. "But I think Florida's going to come home. It's going to be a great election. Our members of our (congressional) delegation are going to do fine, and Sen. McCain's going to take Florida."

Despite the rah-rah rhetoric, an Obama win Tuesday could be good for Crist. It would validate his play-to-the-center style, avoiding ideological politics and divisive wedge issues while working in harmony with Democrats.

Over the second weekend in November, Crist will host a conference of Republican governors in Miami. If, as polls suggest, Obama is president-elect by then, the conference will be Crist's stage to offer his vision of a post-McCain-Palin party.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Crist swaying with the winds 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:08pm]

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