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Charlie Crist briefly back on the campaign trail

TALLAHASSEE — Floridians haven't seen the last of Charlie Crist.

The former governor strolled on stage Monday in a Polo shirt and khakis, endorsing Jackie Pons for superintendent of schools in solidly Democratic Leon County.

No, that's not a typo.

Pons, who's popular and unopposed, doesn't need Crist's help. But Crist remembers people who helped him.

When Crist was the scourge of the Capitol in April 2010 for vetoing a Republican-backed teacher pay-and-tenure bill known as Senate Bill 6, Pons provided a friendly rally at a local high school and praised Crist's veto.

Crist still misses those cheering crowds, even if nearly everyone cheering is a Democrat.

At Pons' kickoff, Crist was introduced by Don Hinkle, a prominent plaintiff's lawyer and self-proclaimed "die-hard Democrat," as a friend of teachers "who would take money the federal government wanted to give to help our children and wouldn't send it back."

More cheers. Then Bob Graham, the former two-term Democratic governor and later a U.S. senator, walked on stage and embraced Crist, an ex-Republican who ran as an independent for U.S. Senate last year.

Is Crist, 55, auditioning for a return to politics, this time as a Democrat?

"I'm pretty happy being an independent," Crist said. "It's kind of nice to visit with all my friends without any sort of speculation one way or the other."

But the speculation goes on, mostly about Crist running for U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's St. Petersburg-based seat if he retires, or maybe running for governor in 2014.

But at the moment, Crist looks backed into a corner.

Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who directed Barack Obama's Florida operation in 2008, says "the numbers don't add up" for Crist to run statewide as an independent because he'd need to get too big a share of the Democratic vote to win.

His only hope for a return to statewide politics, Schale says, is as a Democrat, and that's fraught with peril.

"There's a loyalty issue there," Schale said, meaning fervent Democrats may view Crist as an opportunist who becomes a Democrat out of convenience.

Democrat Alex Sink, who came within a percentage point of being elected governor last year, could run again, and Crist will have trouble explaining some positions to liberal Democratic voters, especially on abortion and guns.

But Crist is well-liked personally, can raise money, has a built-in statewide network and 100 percent name recognition.

Not a bad start.

Floridians haven't seen the last of Crist for another reason: He remains a toxic presence in a Republican primary.

In the GOP contest for U.S. Senate, Adam Hasner this week launched a new video that highlights Crist's ties to his opponent, George LeMieux — Crist's former chief of staff and campaign manager and the man Crist appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2009.

The video shows a smiling LeMieux calling himself a "Charlie Crist Republican."

For now, the ex-governor likes being Citizen Crist.

He works at Morgan & Morgan law firm, teaches part time at Stetson law school and serves on the board of the St. Joe Co., one of the state's largest landowners and developers.

"I really am enjoying the freedom of the private sector," Crist said.

That's a good thing. He may be there awhile.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Charlie Crist briefly back on the campaign trail 08/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 20, 2011 1:04pm]
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