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For Gov. Charlie Crist and President Barack Obama, no man hug this time; just a quick handshake

President Barack Obama is greeted by Gov. Charlie Crist upon his arrival at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Thursday.

Associated Press

President Barack Obama is greeted by Gov. Charlie Crist upon his arrival at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Thursday.

TAMPA — Put yourself in Charlie's shoes.

You're standing there on the big MacDill Air Force Base tarmac, first in line next to Vice President Joe Biden as the door to Air Force One slowly opens.

The sun's beating down. The plane's engines are roaring. The crowd is all eyes.

Do they remember the man hug?

There he is, the president — smiling ear-to-ear and waving as dozens of cameras go click, click, click.

He walks down the stairs. Here comes the hand.

This is where things get tricky for Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. The last time President Barack Obama reached out for him, at a Fort Myers event nearly a year ago, the two ended up in an embarrassingly public display of affection.

Photos of the encounter splashed across the blogosphere, garnering criticism from fellow Republicans who frowned on Crist's support of Obama's $787 billion stimulus package. For Crist, embattled in a tight U.S. Senate race with fellow Republican Marco Rubio, the criticism has never waned.

The next visit Obama made, for a Jacksonville event in October, Crist said he was unaware of the president's plans, and that didn't look too good either.

So now, with Obama in Tampa announcing funds for the high-speed rail project Crist worked so hard to secure, how does Crist react?

What if Obama goes in for the kill? Should Crist pull away? Does he dare hug back?

The answer comes a few seconds later, when Obama steps off Air Force One with his hand outstretched. Cameras click.

Crist manages to get away with a firm handshake, but it is close. Obama's other hand lingers on Crist's elbow as Crist leans in with furrowed brows.

Obama keeps smiling. Crist keeps a straight face.

Later Crist says he was thanking the president for the rail funding, encouraging him to promote more bipartisanship in Washington and talking to him about Florida's application for federal Race to the Top education funding.

He hands Obama a folded letter outlining those points, and the still-smiling president slides it into his jacket.

Crist's other hand reaches up and gives Obama's arm a couple friendly pats.

In 27 seconds, it's all over.

"You never know how much time you're going to have to interact with the man, but it was important to do it," Crist says afterward at a Board of Governors meeting at the University of South Florida.

He reminds a reporter that he was the only Republican to greet Obama as he arrived in Florida: "I was proud to be there because it was the right thing to do."

So did Crist dodge another bout of controversy by eluding Obama's embrace? Only time will tell. As of late Thursday afternoon, there was no public outcry from Republicans.

But CNN devoted several minutes to visuals, contrasting February's man hug to the more reserved handshake. Pundits agreed Crist did the right thing in greeting the president. But there was fun to be had.

With a blown-up version of the handshake on a video screen, analyst Paul Begala offered Zapruder-like insight: "You see, we've got the second hand coming here, the left hand coming around," he said of Obama. "But I can't see — I don't think Gov. Crist, — he's not doubling up. Right, the president is doubling up in there."

After the governor's greeting, Obama toured a MacDill Air Force Base hangar, spoke to a giddy crowd at the University of Tampa and headed back to the nearly empty tarmac.

Just a gaggle of journalists remained. No crowd, no Crist. The president climbed the stairs, turned, waved and flew away.

Times staff writers Richard Danielson, Adam C. Smith and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

For Gov. Charlie Crist and President Barack Obama, no man hug this time; just a quick handshake 01/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 8:51am]
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