WESLEY CHAPEL — He was the rock star at the Pasco Republicans' Reagan Day dinner just five years ago, but on Friday Gov. Charlie Crist, the recently minted independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, was the man rarely mentioned by name.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, the keynote speaker, called him Marco Rubio's "former Republican opponent."
Rubio, in turn, said: "Gov. Bush, it was great for Florida to have a Republican governor. Remember those days?"
"No funds raised tonight will be spent on a portrait of me," said Pasco GOP chairman Randy Maggard, poking fun both at Crist and the state party's well-publicized controversial spending. "You can laugh. … I've been waiting all night to say it."
How things have changed. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis said before the dinner began that he'd attended the 2005 dinner where it was Crist who brought the crowd to its feet. "Yeah, I do remember that," he said. "But he abandoned the party and a lot of people are disappointed. … They're very comfortable with Marco."
Bush, making his first campaign appearance with Rubio, praised what he called the courageous efforts of Republican state legislators to pass an education bill that Crist vetoed amid strong opposition from teachers.
The former governor touched on many of the same small-government themes he has long pushed. He said President Barack Obama was pushing "redistribution of wealth" instead of encouraging entrepreneurial growth.
"The demonization of capitalism has got to stop if we're going to save the problems in our country," he said.
Rubio told attendees that a year ago, he was 30 points behind in state polls. In June, the Pasco County GOP became the first group to overwhelmingly endorse Rubio in a straw poll.
"As Pasco's straw poll goes," said Rubio to applause, "so goes the Republican primary."
In comments to reporters later, Rubio reiterated his support for offshore drilling even in the face of the oil slick threatening the environment and the economy. "There's going to be drilling in the gulf whether America's doing it or not," he said, citing Cuba's interest. He said the United States needed to find a way to stop the problem, then figure out what went wrong and how much BP should pay.
About 600 Republicans attended Friday night's fundraiser. Among the attendees were Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is running for governor; state party chairman John Thrasher; Senate President Jeff Atwater; and state Rep. Will Weatherford.
Crist's strongest supporter, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, did not attend because he had a previous commitment to a Relay for Life event in Trinity on Friday.
"The first Lincoln Day dinner, it used to be called the Lincoln Day dinner, in 1984, there was no one here," said Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells. "This one, everybody showed up."
One of the more interesting pairs?
U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite and Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent, who walked into the dinner together, shaking hands and posing for photographs.
Just a week ago, Brown-Waite ticked off a number of Pasco and Hernando Republicans when she announced on the last day for filing that she would not run again, then promptly endorsed Nugent, who filed his papers to run just before the deadline. Local Republicans criticized that move as a clandestine ploy that denied them the chance to field other candidates.
But, hey, no hard feelings on Reagan Day.
"So far everybody has been wonderful," Brown-Waite told the St. Petersburg Times. "They're praying for my health. I could've stayed home, fearing a confrontation. But that's not my style."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.