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For Gov. Crist, darkest days are always sunny in Florida

Tax revenues in Florida will drop by $3.5 billion more, this year and next.

The public employee pension fund has lost billions and may require a bailout.

The unemployment compensation fund has shrunk by half in five months.

I could go on, but you get the point. It was just another week in paradise.

All of this news would sound pretty depressing if Charlie Crist were not governor. Spend a few minutes in Sunshine Charlie's midst, and all of the state's problems seem to magically melt away.

Most people require the assistance of controlled substances to achieve the level of euphoria expressed by Gov. Charlie Crist. But the tanned man from St. Petersburg has a way of sugarcoating reality so that everything seems right.

Are things not as bad as they seem? Or is Crist living in an alternate reality?

"We'll get through it. I know that we will," Crist said in a breakfast speech on Wednesday to a visiting group of Broward County civic leaders. "I'm an optimist. You may be aware of that fact. I'm the kind of guy who sees the glass as half-full."

Even when the glass is cracked and leaking — like Florida's tax base? (Crist's fellow Republican, Senate President Jeff Atwater, has decreed that "everything is on the table" when it comes to studying Florida's creaky tax base, including whether to repeal sales tax exemptions.)

Crist is an admirer of former Gov. LeRoy Collins, who was born 100 years ago this week. But Collins refused to sugarcoat the ugly racial divisions of the late 1950s and early '60s in Florida. Instead, he took a tough stand and challenged people to be more tolerant.

Collins paid a high price. When he ran for a U.S. Senate in 1968, race-baiting opponents made sure he would lose. But as the decades rolled by, Collins is regarded as the most courageous governor in the state's history.

Crist unplugged, speaking off the cuff, is fascinating, because his inner id reverts to his comfort zone. In this case, it was his first successful campaign for the state Senate in 1992, when he ran on the four E's of ethics, environment, economy and education.

Standing at a lectern on the Capitol's 22nd floor, he talked about Florida's great weather. He talked about the beautiful beaches. He marveled at how so many people in the audience were born elsewhere. He marveled at the fact that 35 million tourists a year visit Florida.

He showered Democrats with praise, summoning Sen. Jeremy Ring ("a trusted friend") to the podium, who returned the favor by telling the crowd about Crist charming liberal Democratic retirees in his South Florida district.

The popular governor's above-the-fray approach to Florida's massive fiscal problems is a big part of the reason why so many Tallahassee insiders are convinced he has already decided to forgo a re-election campaign in favor of a run for Mel Martinez's U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

Asked this week which way he's leaning, Crist said: "No leaning. No leaning. No leaning at all. Just leaning toward trying to do as much as I can during the session, and evaluate thereafter."

But isn't all this chatter of a Senate campaign distracting?

"Not for me. It really isn't," Crist said. "My focus is on trying to do what we can to get this federal stimulus money, and fund education properly, protect our environment, and make sure we continue to have a safe state for our people."

Just another week in paradise.

For Gov. Crist, darkest days are always sunny in Florida 03/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 7:28am]
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