ORLANDO — Charlie Crist is walking a tightrope as the presidential election heads into the final 16 days in all-important Florida.
The one-time vice presidential contender whose January endorsement helped crown McCain as the Republican nominee obviously wants the Arizona senator to win and is working to deliver Florida's 27 electoral votes. But if the popular governor attaches himself too closely to the McCain-Palin campaign, he risks tarnishing his own brand of bipartisanship.
Which is why at a Florida GOP rally in Orlando on Saturday, Crist's pep talk did not echo the McCain campaign's recent attacks on Barack Obama's character or include sweeping denunciations of Democrats as virtual socialists. As usual, the governor barely even mentioned Obama and instead talked up McCain.
"John McCain — a true American hero. You know what he has been through in his life. He has put his country first his entire life" said Crist to a hotel ballroom crowd sprinkled with "McCain-Palin" and "Charlie Crist, the people's governor" signs.
"We can do anything for 17 days, and we will," Crist said, urging activists to ramp it up for the final days. "Everything — absolutely everything — to make sure John McCain and Sarah Palin win this thing."
Florida Republicans already are looking ahead to 2010 when Crist runs for re-election. State party officials announced to their state executive committee Saturday that they expect to carry over at least $2-million into 2009, rather than spend all their money on this election.
No one sees Crist as especially vulnerable, but given the state of Florida 's economy he isn't completely safe either. One survey by a Democratic pollster released Friday showed a bare majority, 52 percent, would vote to re-elect Crist today.
Unlike Jeb Bush, who never shied away from attacking Democrats and aggressively courted the Republican base, Crist is navigating an anti-Republican climate by reaching across party lines. He understands that his path to re-election in 2010 will require support from Obama supporters in 2008.
"The way business is being conducted in Tallahassee, on multiple fronts, from the legislative agenda to broad policies, is to bring both parties together on behalf of Floridians," said Eric Eikenberg, Crist's chief of staff. "The governor's changed the partisanship from day one, and in my opinion that's the model for Washington."
So when the McCain campaign relentlessly attacks the community organizing and voter registration group ACORN as a quasi-criminal racket, Crist downplays any concerns about ACORN's activities in Florida. And that's why, as Palin and other McCain allies trash Obama and question his patriotism, the toughest thing Crist will say is that Obama will raise taxes.
"I enjoy campaigning as a happy warrior. The most important advice anybody can give in politics is be yourself," Crist explained Saturday when asked about his gentle treatment of the Democratic nominee.
"There's so much virtuous to talk about with John McCain — his record, his character, his patriotism is unparalleled," Crist said. "He won my heart and I think he'll win Florida's hearts."
Polls show Obama narrowly leading Florida, where a loss would cost McCain the White House. If McCain loses, Crist will face grumbling from Republicans questioning whether he did enough to help after getting passed over for Palin.
But if Florida decides the election, at least as many people will question whether McCain blew it by not picking Crist. On an interview airing today on Political Connections on Bay News 9, McCain himself suggested Crist would have swung the state to him.
Despite a lot of anxiety from fellow Republicans, and Democrats adding nearly 250,000 more voters to the rolls this year than Republicans, Florida's ever-sunny governor said Saturday he is optimistic.
"We'll have a great as usual get-out-the-vote effort — ginormous, Crist said. "On the other side, to the Democrats' credit, (there were) incredible registrations, which is probably due to Sen. Obama. Those two variables in the end will probably determine what happens."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.
Obama times rally for early voting
Barack Obama will hold an "early vote for change" rally Monday at Legends Field, to promote the start of early voting in Florida. Doors open at 10:30 a.m. at the stadium at 3802 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and the event is free and open to the public. Although tickets are not required, the campaign is encouraging people to RSVP online at FL.barackobama.com. The Tampa rally kicks off a two-day Florida swing also scheduled to include stops in Broward County and Orlando on Monday, and stops Tuesday in Miami and Palm Beach County.