CLEARWATER — Four years ago, Charlie Crist's smile beamed from a 70-foot-tall banner on the side of a Tampa office building. He could snub a visit from President George W. Bush. He flew around the state, rallying with Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.
This weekend, it was his Republican rival for U.S. Senate, Marco Rubio, hosting Giuliani and big crowds, while the no-party governor dropped in on street festivals and greeted fans at a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game. Monday, with two weeks left in the campaign, he spoke to dozens of Clearwater UPS workers before a quick Teamsters bus ride to a Largo early voting site.
"There's no doubt that running the campaign as an independent is different from running a campaign as a major party candidate," Danny Kanner, a Crist spokesman, said Monday.
He quickly argued that's also what makes Crist the best candidate: "He will be beholden to no one but the people of Florida."
But voters also seem to notice the difference. Four years ago, Crist narrowly led his Democratic rival in October. This time, it's Rubio with a solid lead in recent polls.
Not that a candidate's shoe-leather translates directly to polling power. Democrat Kendrick Meek — who trails Rubio by a greater margin — set the pace for weekend events, with five Saturday and 10 on Sunday from Orlando to Miami Gardens in a rented car. Monday, it was four more South Florida appearances, plus three interviews.
"His schedule is always jam-packed. He's always working hard," spokesman Adam Sharon said.
At 10:45 today, former President Bill Clinton once again rallies with Meek, this time at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, a draw his campaign estimates will attract at least 1,000 people, as Clinton did at three August events. The Meek campaign, not the Democratic Party, organized the visits, Sharon said.
"Campaigns are expected to be able to put together events," he said.
The story was different for Rubio.
After five stops Saturday with Giuliani in Sarasota and Delray Beach that attracted hundreds, the front-runner laid low.
Rubio spent Sunday with his family, as he often does, and canceled a Monday rally in Orlando. Spokesman Alex Burgos said he instead prepared for today's debate and celebrated his 12-year anniversary with his wife.
Saturday, after a week in Davie, Miami and Port St. Lucie, he'll be back on stage with high-profile Republicans, at a GOP rally in Orlando with national chairman Michael Steele and Sarah Palin.
And there are other boosts, as well. Groups launched with help from GOP gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie — American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies — have put $2 million into mailings, TV ads and phone calls.
The most recent expense by American Crossroads was $808,869 for mailings supporting Rubio. The rest of the money has been spent on television ads and phone calls backing him or attacking Crist.
''The Washington special interests know about Marco Rubio's hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded giveaways here in Florida, and are hoping there's more money where that came from should he win,'' said Kanner, Crist's spokesman.
Crist told UPS workers Monday that he's running "against the system."
Speaking through a portable microphone in a warehouse-style building lined with big brown trucks, the governor said, "I'm sick of parties. … It has to be for the people."
Monday morning, those people included Crist stalwarts state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, and Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. There was a Teamster of four decades who said Crist would protect the working man; a solar energy advocate who appreciates Crist's record; and a campaign volunteer who touted Crist's support of women's issues.
His recent endorsements have included Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who joined him in Deerfield Beach, and the centrist Republican of governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Fasano said Crist's schedule (one his spokesman called "very fluid") reaches beyond folks you might find at traditional rallies.
"People at those party events already know who they're voting for," he said.
Indeed, Crist seemed ready to reach out to anyone: On his way to early voting in Largo, he stopped the bus for some Dunkin' Donuts coffee, and ran across the street to greet a propane truck driver.
He shook more hands outside a Hess station before the bus finished its trip, less than 10 miles.
Outside the Pinellas Election Service Center, his political director, Michelle Todd, marshaled supporters holding "Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate" signs.
"Get over here! We'll take a big group shot," she said. As they cheered "One, two, three, Charlie!" she asked them to hold the pose.
"Another one, 'cause I'm zooming on your faces right now," she said.
Otherwise, her camera would have shown about 30 people next to a parking lot.
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.