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Welcome back to the job, Gov. Crist

Is it the scary poll numbers? The chorus of critics in the Republican base? The bad-mouthing by columnists and pundits?

Whatever it is, a subtle but unmistakable shift is evident in the way Gov. Charlie Crist is acting.

Now trailing Marco Rubio in polls for the U.S. Senate Republican primary, the governor seems more focused on his job.

His daily schedule has more events than it did a month or two ago. He gives longer and more nuanced answers to questions. And he reconnects with average people in speeches like he did when he was running in 2006.

Whether this resurgent spirit is real and sustained is too soon to tell. But Crist seems to have figured out that the best approach — for him and the state — is to attend to the job he will hold for the next 10 months.

As Crist moves forward, consider three possible political scenarios:

• Crist doesn't know it yet, but the ball game is over. As he sinks in the polls, it's becoming clearer he can't possibly beat Rubio. So he might as well focus on being governor and accept that his political career, for now, is over.

• Rubio is peaking way, way too early. It will eventually dawn on people that he has positioned himself too far to the right to win the November general election.

• The race is still wide open. Republicans may be more likely to "come home" to Crist if he can show them he's serious about moving the state forward.

To that end, Crist strode into the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Tallahassee on Thursday morning for a meeting of the Workforce Florida board of directors. For nearly 15 minutes, speaking crisply and without notes, he addressed Florida's economic calamity and his "team" of dedicated people at the helm of state government.

"Never stop. Never stop. Never stop," Crist told members of the group that oversees the state's work force programs. "Stay focused. Don't get down. It's easy to be brought down by negative stuff that you may hear out there."

Before and after his speech, Crist answered reporters' questions on a range of topics, from the economy to reform of the Public Service Commission to that pesky controversy over undisclosed Republican Party credit cards. At every opportunity, he hit the theme of trying to create jobs.

Crist says he's following the advice of one of his Democratic predecessors, Bob Graham, who told Crist to focus on his job during the week and be a "weekend warrior," campaigning only on Saturdays and Sundays.

He's already working on his final State of the State speech, which he'll deliver to a joint session of the Legislature on March 2 at 6 p.m. (in part to ensure news of the speech makes TV newscasts).

Remember this: Many people have miscalculated by underestimating Crist as a lightweight politician who can't possibly win. He was laughed off as a serious candidate for education commissioner and attorney general but won those races, and got elected governor in 2006 with 52 percent of the vote.

It's true that times are different now, and it's a precarious time to be an incumbent. But it's also possible that people have once again written off Crist way too soon.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Welcome back to the job, Gov. Crist 02/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 8:20pm]
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