What better way for Barack Obama to kick off a bus tour along Florida's swing voter corridor than with a robust man hug from Charlie Crist? • Back in 2009 the then-Republican governor embraced the newly elected Democratic president when he visited Fort Myers — an image that ultimately helped turn the GOP against Crist and prompted him to drop his lifelong party to run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate as an independent.
On Saturday, two days after delivering a speech for Obama at the Democratic National Convention, Crist introduced the president in his home county of Pinellas, the two of them sharing a hearty bro hug.
"When I served as a Republican governor — you know, I'm not in that party anymore, they left me — even though I was still a Republican, when we had an oil spill, we needed help for our teachers, our police and our firefighters, President Barack Obama was there for us. And now it's time for us to be there for him again," Crist told about 11,000 people gathered at St. Petersburg College in Seminole.
Said the president: "I want to thank Charlie Crist for his introduction, for his support, for showing that the values that we're fighting for are not Democratic values or Republican values, they are American values. That's what we're fighting for."
The Pinellas event kicked off a two-day bus tour across the Interstate 4 political battleground. In Seminole and later Saturday in Kissimmee, Obama repeated much of his convention speech in Charlotte, N.C., albeit with more energy.
He argued that the Romney-Ryan plan to turn the country around amounts to more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which will swell the deficit and require draconian cuts to domestic programs.
"All they've got to offer is the same prescriptions that they've had for 30 years: tax cuts, tax cuts, gut a few regulations, some more tax cuts. Tax cuts when times are good. Tax cuts when times are bad. Tax cuts to help you lose a few extra pounds, tax cuts to help your love life," Obama said, noting the tax cuts he supported for small businesses and middle-class families.
"I don't believe, and you don't believe, that another round of tax breaks for millionaires is going to bring good jobs back to our shores, or pay down our deficit. I don't believe that firing teachers or kicking students off of financial aid — students who go right here to this institution — that somehow that's going to help our economy, or help us compete with scientists and engineers coming out of China."
Saturday marked the president's 16th stop in 2012 in Florida, a state that even some Democrats acknowledge is looking stronger for Obama than anyone would have predicted months ago. Recent polls show a dead-even race, or Obama narrowly ahead, though Mitt Romney and his allies have been significantly outspending Obama and his allies on TV in recent weeks.
"We always believed in Florida even when others didn't," said White House senior adviser and 2008 Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, after Obama made an unscheduled stop at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop to chat with diners and pick up five Cuban sandwiches.
"This is the same as last time. People told us we were nuts to be contesting Florida because (John) McCain had a big lead on us. But you've got to look how you think the vote is going to unfold," Plouffe said. "We've been outspent a lot here, so I think we feel very pleased that we've been able to maintain our position here in the face of a withering assault."
The campaign sees Crist as a strong ally for making the case that the GOP has moved too far to the right and in helping to win over independents and seniors.
A recent Florida survey by Public Policy Polling found voters evenly divided on whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Crist. Thirty-six percent of independents have a favorable view of Crist and 44 percent have an unfavorable one, but Democrats say private polling shows Crist far more popular than that.
In Seminole, the crowd for the outdoor rally swelled throughout the morning, despite muggy conditions and occasional rain. A campaign volunteer said that as many as 15,000 people were expected, and sheriff's deputies turned away some ticket-holders, saying there was no more room.
"I think he's inspiring," said St. Petersburg attorney Martin Champagne, who animatedly discussed the president's speech with his legal assistant, Suzette Posada. "I contrast that to the other side and I see a big void, I don't see anything there."
Champagne said the health care law allowed him to get health insurance after previously being denied because of a pre-existing condition.
"It's not every day you can say: Dude, I just looked at the president," said Steven Mackover, 18, a St. Petersburg College freshman and Obama supporter who will vote for the first time this November.
Maria Cramm, a 28-year-old St. Petersburg College graduate about to head to Cornell University to study biomedical engineering, said she enthusiastically backs Obama because she worries Romney's tax and budget plans would raise her taxes and cut her Pell grant.
"I have a full scholarship to Cornell, and that would really hurt me if Pell grants got cut," she said.
Obama flew into Pinellas late Friday and spent the night at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon. Drivers on Saturday slowed to snap photos of Air Force One parked at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
During his Tampa Bay visit, two small airplanes wandered into temporarily restricted airspace. Two F-16 fighter jets intercepted the first plane shortly after 11 a.m., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the Cessna L-19 was headed to Gainesville from Key West.
The second violation occurred about 2 p.m. In that case, a Cessna 210 was on its way to Key West from New Port Richey. It was unclear if fighter jets were called out for that.
Obama drew a raucous crowd of about 3,000 at a civic center in Kissimmee. The sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up, he talked up his goals to increase exports and reduce jobs sent overseas, to gain more control of the country's energy needs, to reduce the deficit, and continue to improve the nation's education system.
He also embraced the GOP's denigrating term for the Affordable Care Act.
"I like the term Obamacare. Mr. Romney says he's going to repeal it, which means his plan is RomneyDon'tCare," said Obama, who also stopped at an Orlando sports bar, Gators Dockside, where he chatted and drank beer with customers.
At one table full of kids, the president lit up when he learned one boy was born in Hawaii like him. "You were born in Hawaii? You have a birth certificate?" the president asked as the table burst out laughing.
"The only thing the president loves more than a bus tour is a hug," quipped campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Times staffers Boyzell Hosey, Sharon Kennedy Wynne and Melissa Lyttle contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]