Trailing in Senate race, Crist keeps up his charm offense

Independent U.S. Senate candidate Gov. Charlie Crist makes a campaign stop recently in Orlando. He trails the GOP’s Marco Rubio.

Associated Press

Independent U.S. Senate candidate Gov. Charlie Crist makes a campaign stop recently in Orlando. He trails the GOP’s Marco Rubio.

TAMPA — Of all the wonders in Florida, surely one is Charlie Crist working an airport.

"You all are going to Israel? Oy vey!'' Crist gushed last week at Tampa International Airport to a church group heading overseas. "You're going to be back before the election, right?" he added, handing out campaign cards.

With his stark white hair, ever-golden tan, and impeccable salmon-colored tie, Crist didn't just greet voters, he enveloped them in warmth and happiness.

"Your name is Margaret? I have a sister named Margaret!'' he howled to one beaming traveler, as if it were the greatest coincidence.

To a Hispanic TSA agent checking the governor's briefcase: "Thanks for what you do for our country. … I would appreciate your vote — por favor."

If this were another politician, people would call him obsequious. But this is Gov. Charlie Crist, who emanates cheer and humility.

The perma-cheer is even more remarkable considering Crist, 54, is on the verge of being cast into political oblivion after nearly two decades in office. This former superstar — on the vice presidential short list just two years ago — is a man without a party, shunned by longtime friends and badly trailing Republican Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race.

Since he fled the Republican Party five months ago, Crist has been relentlessly tarred as a political opportunist, one who has relished being described as a Jeb Bush Republican as well as the best governor Democrats have ever had. He's hailed the leadership of Al Gore and Sarah Palin, railed against offshore drilling and embraced it. He has advocated chain gangs and made it easier for ex-felons to regain their rights.

But for all of Crist's flip-flopping, backpedaling and shape-shifting, one thing remains the same: He is Gov. Sunshine.

"Please! Call me Charlie."

• • •

There is little question Crist is a politician with limitless ambition. He has spent much of his career looking for the next job: six years in the state Senate until running unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Bob Graham in 1998; elected education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006, when he quickly made clear he'd be happy to move into the vice presidency. In 2009, Crist decided to run for Mel Martinez's open U.S. Senate seat, becoming the first governor not to seek a second term since the state Constitution was amended in 1968 to allow it.

"The underlying principle for Charlie Crist is Charlie Crist. It's all about him, and it always has been,'' said state GOP chairman John Thrasher. "He's betrayed a lot of friends and a lot of people who put time and energy and sweat and blood and resources into his career. People now see he's a flip-flopper and has no core set of principles."

But in many respects Crist is precisely the same person today as he was in the 1990s, grilling the late Gov. Lawton Chiles over misleading campaign calls to seniors.

Fundamentally, Crist is a nice guy — unfailingly civil and polite. He has maintained the persona even though he's never hesitated to flay opponents with tough campaign ads.

No one has ever accused Crist of using his office to feather his own nest or his family's, something neither Rubio nor Democrat Kendrick Meek can say.

"There is a genuine decency and kindness,'' said former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat who served with Crist in the Legislature and has endorsed him for Senate. "I certainly didn't always agree with him, but he has integrity and at his heart is a populist who sincerely wants to do the right thing for the people of Florida."

Shameless? Sometimes. Opportunistic? You bet.

On Friday, Crist told the Palm Beach Post with a straight face that he would have dropped out of the Republican primary and run as an independent even if he had been 20 points ahead of Rubio. Even his staunchest supporters know that's absurd.

And so do many voters, but don't think it necessarily bothers them.

"He's a politician. Everybody understands that,'' said Adele Lieberman, a staunch Democrat who recently attended a Crist rally at the Kings Point retirement community in Tamarac. "But I still trust him when he says he's going to fight for the people of Florida and do the right thing."

• • •

At the core of Crist's political magic is that people genuinely like and trust the guy. Political professionals through the years have marveled at the way conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have looked at Crist and seen a politician they could be comfortable with.

Crist's pollster, Keith Frederick, noted that in June, after months of lousy publicity, they found two-thirds of voters viewed Crist as honest and trustworthy, and it extended across party lines. Likewise, about 70 percent of people surveyed said Crist was in touch with and cares about people like them.

That innate likability enables Crist to say some of the corniest things and charm even the most cynical voters.

Speaking last weekend to a largely Jewish crowd in Palm Beach County, Crist recounted the hand-scrawled prayer he inserted in the Western Wall during a 2007 trip to Israel.

Please God, protect our Florida from storms and other difficulties. --- Charlie.

"That was in May,'' he said, ticking off the calendar. "June, July, August, September — no hurricane. God is Good!"

Every year since, he has written the same prayer and asked friends to deliver it to the Western Wall on his behalf.

Nobody mistakes Crist, who failed the Bar exam twice, for a policy wonk. He's never presented himself that way or fretted when editorial writers or critics dismiss him as a shallow headline-grabber.

"I think that the most consistent thing about the man who often appears to be inconsistent is that he has always, going all the way back to Chain Gang Charlie, been willing, if not anxious, to be disrespected by the intellectuals and the pundits and the mandarins of Florida in order to literally be the people's tribune," said Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich.

• • •

If there is a consistent ideology to Crist, it's shunning rigid ideology. Staffers over the years have grown accustomed to Crist asking them before significant decisions: Is this the right thing to do?

He has always had a populist streak, from early in his career when he successfully sued Florida Power over a proposed rate increase to pushing a law to stop early release of prisoners.

"Charlie has always been a very decent and tolerant person and a moderate politically,'' said former state House Speaker Peter Wallace, a Democrat who has known Crist 40 years. "He's somebody who's very attuned to and good at listening to the moods and sentiments of the Florida voters."

Which explains why Crist started calling himself "pro-life" while running in a Republican gubernatorial primary in 2006. (In truth, it only meant he was anti-death, since Crist has consistently supported abortion rights.) It explains why he has always railed against tax increases but did support raising cigarette taxes by a dollar last year and in 1996 backed a "Penny-a-Pound" sugar tax to fund Everglades restoration.

"At my core I have common sense,'' Crist summarized. "Charlie Crist stands for: Tax cuts? Hell yes. Government in your bedroom? Hell no."

• • •

Crist says his best friends are his wife, Carole, and his father, Dr. Charles Crist. Dad says Crist genuinely feels liberated as a nonpartisan candidate — "now he can be more candid without upsetting certain elements" — and genuinely believes he can win.

Under attack by both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and trailing by double digits in the polls, the odds are tough. Crist is an unrelenting optimist, however, and as he made his way through the Tampa airport the other day surrounded by smiles and attaboys, it was easy to understand his confidence.

"I really appreciate the way you put people ahead of political parties," VA hospital worker Ricky Stephens told the governor.

A crumpled piece of paper fell to the ground from Stephens' pocket, and Crist swooped to pick it up. He looked Stephens in the eye.

"Bless you for what you do for our veterans,'' Crist said. "Here, why don't you take a bumper sticker?"

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

The U.S. Senate

This is the second of three profiles on the major candidates for U.S. Senate. Coming next Sunday: Republican Marco Rubio. To read our profile of Democrat Kendrick Meek, go to links.tampabay.com.

Trailing in Senate race, Crist keeps up his charm offense 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 10:51pm]

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