CLEARWATER — In public, the line has been drawn. Republicans have abandoned Gov. Charlie Crist, who announced that he was running for the U.S. Senate as a nonpartisan candidate, and thrown their muscle behind Marco Rubio.
But for Republican and Democratic legislators in Pinellas County — Crist's home turf — the choice is not as clear-cut.
"Early, I was a supporter of Gov. Crist," said state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. "As of today, I'm a free agent. I'm not officially supporting any candidate."
Hooper's comments came Friday morning during the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative breakfast at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Fresh from the 2010 session, which ended April 30, Pinellas House and Senate members took turns briefing area stakeholders on abortion, transportation, Medicaid and education reform.
But the issue that sparked the most interest came toward the end of the 1 1/2-hour breakfast, when Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong pointedly asked each official to declare their choice for U.S. Senate: the newly independent Crist, Democratic contender Kendrick Meek or Rubio.
Of the five members of the Pinellas Legislative Delegation at the breakfast, three were Republicans and two were Democrats. No one was ready to throw their name behind any candidate, except for state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who's supporting Crist.
"It's a long way from now until November," said state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole. "At this moment, I'm not supporting anyone. I'm watching and listening."
The lack of decisiveness among some of her colleagues stemmed from their personal histories with Crist.
State Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, said he was president of Crist's first fundraiser.
"It's so far back I don't even remember the year," said Frishe, who considers himself more conservative than Crist. "We've become friends over the years and have stayed friends through all the different fights we've had. I like Charlie. Always have. I've also served with Marco Rubio. I kind of like Charlie."
His Democratic counterpart in the House, Rep. Bill Heller, said the governor was one of the first people he met when he came to St. Petersburg. But "I'm pulling a Hooper," Heller said. "I'm in between. I think the world of Gov. Crist."
Fasano said friendship and loyalty "goes long and deep."
"Whether you agree with Senate Bill 6 (on teacher merit pay) or not, the guy got out there and heard from the people and he vetoed the bill because he heard it was wrong," Fasano said.
"Whether you agree with the drilling or not in the Gulf of Mexico, he's listening to the people. Here's a guy that finally has become the independent that he has always been and I think he's got some great courage, and that's why I support him."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.