TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist used the taxpayer-funded state plane Wednesday for a four-city media blitz that promoted a pro-business initiative but ended with a Miami campaign fundraiser.
The ceremonial bill signings that took him from Tallahassee to Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers and, finally, Miami, touted legislation signed eight days ago to temporarily delay an unemployment compensation tax increase.
After the last event at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Crist was slated to attend a fundraiser for his Senate campaign on Fisher Island. Asked at the chamber if it was appropriate to travel to a campaign event on the state plane, Crist said, "So long as I'm doing this (bill signing) before I do something else, yes, ma'am."
The statement marked a reversal for the governor, who used to boast that he wouldn't fly the state plane to cities where he had both state business and campaign events.
"I don't think the taxpayer ought to get me to South Florida (for a fundraiser)," Crist told a Times/Herald reporter in June when asked why he was flying commercial. "I'm trying to do the right thing."
Total cost to taxpayers for Wednesday's fly-around: About $3,100, according to flight data on similar trips maintained by the Department of Management Services.
The governor toured the state Wednesday as polls show him falling further behind U.S. Senate rival Marco Rubio, who launched the first television ad of the race. The spot airing exclusively on FOX News aims to project a positive image of Rubio before Crist unleashes an anticipated onslaught of attack ads.
"As we've seen over the last several days, Charlie Crist thinks this race is about attacking Marco Rubio and climbing the political ladder," said campaign strategist Todd Harris, referring to Crist's promotion of recent Times/Herald stories about Rubio's use of a party credit card for personal expenses and $250 million in pet projects in the 2000-2008 state budgets.
Crist vowed Wednesday to "abstain from special interest earmarks and pork barrel spending" if he is elected to Congress. The Rubio campaign quickly accused Crist of hypocrisy because he signed two of the budgets at issue into law, but vetoed just $3 million in Rubio-related earmarks.
Rubio's camp did not disclose the cost or breadth of the advertising run, except to say it was significant. Still, going on the air more than five months before the Aug. 24 primary suggests mounting fundraising strength, and marks another unexpected turn in what was supposed to be a cakewalk for the sitting governor.
The ad furthers Rubio's strategy to position himself as a political outsider at a time when anti-government sentiment is running high. Without a tie or jacket, Rubio looks more like a concerned father of four children than the former leader of the Florida House, speaking directly to the camera and kissing his toddler son. His daughters wear matching striped outfits.
"Washington is broken, and too many politicians don't get it," Rubio says. He adds, in a swipe at Crist's support for the president's $787 billion economic stimulus package: "America needs Republicans who will stand up to Barack Obama, not join him."
Rubio, who is Cuban-American, describes himself as "the son of exiles" in the commercial laced with echoes of the American dream.
Crist's use of the state plane recalled newspaper reports in the summer detailing the frequent flights of Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Sink's campaign for governor reimbursed the state for $17,022.75 worth of flights following criticism that she used the state plane to go to cities where she mixed state and campaign business.
Since the 2009 lawmaking session, Crist has participated in at least six multicity blitzes to tout new legislation or causes he is championing. The governor defended Wednesday's multicity bill signings, saying they were important to raise awareness in the business community.
"The point is to make sure they know what's happening and that there are good things that are occurring in our economy as it relates to their business specifically," Crist said. "It's what we've done since the beginning of our administration because people have a right to know."
Beth Reinhard can be reached at [email protected]