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Behind would-be Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, a loose-knit crew of advisers

Charlie Crist, almost unique among political figures of his stature, has never had a consistent inner circle of advisers at his side.

Ask anyone who knows the former Florida governor well — or as well as anyone can know the ever-sunny but often inscrutable Crist — and they will tell you he has two primary confidants: Carole Crist, his wife, and Dr. Charles Crist, his father.

"He keeps his cards very close to the vest," said Eric Johnson, a South Florida Democratic consultant who worked on Crist's unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid as an independent in 2010 and now is chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter. "He listens to everybody and takes in everybody's advice, but he definitely has an inner compass and does call a lot of his own shots."

That's partly why in campaign after campaign, the relentlessly frugal Crist has hired a bare-bones staff. From routine press calls to requests for speaking engagements, Crist often handled them directly rather than having them filtered through an entourage of aides.

On the big-picture political questions, few Floridians better understand state politics than Crist.

"If Charlie Crist wasn't in public office he would more than likely be a high-paid political consultant. He understands this stuff better than most people who get paid to do it," said Democratic consultant Steve Schale.

But should Crist run against Gov. Rick Scott on new Democratic terrain, he will be leaning on a select group of counselors while having to keep some of his own political impulses in check.

So whom does Crist, 56, rely on for political guidance, as he positions himself to launch what would be the most extraordinary political comeback in Florida history?

• • •

When you've spent your life as a Republican politician and now want to succeed as a Democratic politician, there are lots of new people to meet.

When Crist recently got together with Fedrick Ingram, president of Miami-Dade's teachers union, Dan Gelber made the introduction, just as he has squired Crist to numerous meetings with influential Democrats lately.

This is the same Dan Gelber who used to show up at debates for the purpose of trashing Crist to reporters and talking up Crist's 2006 Democratic gubernatorial rival, Jim Davis.

But today the former state senator from Miami Beach is a key player in what is essentially Crist's exploratory campaign for governor. While he remains uncommitted in the governor's race, Gelber said that as a legislator working closely with Gov. Crist, he came to admire Crist's leadership.

"In my relationship with him he always seemed pretty moderate. On big issues he always seemed to be closer to us than the Republicans," said Gelber, who before the 2008 presidential election persuaded Crist to extend early voting hours to better accommodate long lines of voters.

Crist's style is not to gather a large group around a table and survey them for advice. Rather, he tends to speak individually to people he trusts, weigh their advice, and then make up his own mind.

It's a testament to Crist's political smarts that most of the people he's relying on lately are among the smartest and most plugged-in Democratic political minds in the state. Sometimes they offer advice, sometimes they make introductions. None is paid.

Among politicians, there is Gelber in Miami-Dade; former state Sen. Steve Geller in Broward County; former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Palm Beach County, now head of the Washington-based Center for Middle East Peace; former state Sen. Tony Hill of Jacksonville; and former Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

The operatives he communicates with most frequently are the A-team of Florida Democratic politics: Johnson, Rep. Murphy's chief of staff; Schale, who ran Barack Obama's 2008 Florida campaign; and Ashley Walker, who ran Obama's 2012 Florida campaign and developed a relationship with Crist as he campaigned for Obama.

"I talk to him, just as I talk to a lot of statewide Democrats, but I'm not committed to any candidate at this point," Walker said, echoing the sentiments of most of Crist's loose-knit crew of advisers, who also speak highly of prospective gubernatorial candidates Alex Sink and Sen. Bill Nelson.

A couple of Democratic pros in Tampa who keep their profiles lower have longstanding friendships with Crist: Mike Hamby, a businessman and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party who went to Cumberland Law School with Crist; and Bernie Campbell, who works extensively abroad and even as he was working to elect Democrats across Florida a few years ago quietly helped craft speeches for the then-Republican governor.

Greg Truax, a public relations consultant in Tampa, these days serves as Crist's de facto "body man," accompanying the would-be candidate to public events. Former aide Michelle Todd of St. Petersburg often fields interview requests from national media outlets.

Unquestionably, Crist's top adviser lately is John Morgan, his boss at the Morgan & Morgan personal injury law firm, a longtime political power broker who has backed Democrats and Republicans alike and is one of the state's top fundraisers.

• • •

Already, some Democratic allies are fretting that against an incumbent governor planning to spend $100 million in an era where messaging is shaped minute by minute, Crist will suffer if he fails to quickly invest in policy advisers, communications pros and opposition researchers. (Their first order of business, by the way, would be to look at Crist's own record and comments over his lifetime as a Republican.)

"If you're going to be successful you have to rely on the professionals,'' said Hamby, who is confident Crist would do just that. "He would build an effective operation. There's no question it's a different game today, just the whole nature of campaigns and how they operate."

Crist is giving every indication he intends to run, speaking to Democratic groups, meeting with influential ministers, labor groups, activists and fundraisers. But nobody, except perhaps Crist and a few family members, knows for sure.

There is little incentive for him to announce soon. Summer is a lousy time to raise money in Florida, and the sooner he formally enters the race, the sooner the Florida GOP opens fire on their former standard bearer.

For now, Walker said, Crist can continue making friends in the Democratic Party without a bull's-eye on him.

"He can do that a while longer, but I don't think he has the luxury to wait until next year or late fall," she said.

Crist told the Tampa Bay Times he has no time line for a decision, and if he runs he will follow the same guidelines he always used in politics: Listen.

"I've never been wary of listening to the people you have around you, and if we do this I expect that would be the case again,'' he said. "There are a lot of very smart Democrats."

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamsmithtimes.

Behind would-be Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, a loose-knit crew of advisers 05/24/13 [Last modified: Saturday, May 25, 2013 7:24pm]
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