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Charlie Crist unleashed: A wide-ranging interview with the newly independent one

ST. PETERSBURG — Something peculiar is going on with Charlie Crist.

He's on the cusp of losing public office, his lifelong party is attacking him mercilessly, and some of his closest friends are yanking their support now that he's running for Senate as a nonpartisan candidate instead of a Republican. And yet even by the relentlessly cheerful standards of Gov. Crist, he seems even more upbeat and relaxed than ever.

"I'm very happy. I really am. Listen, I don't know if I've ever enjoyed being a public servant as much as I have the past few weeks because I feel really in touch with where the people are," the governor said in a wide-ranging talk with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board Thursday.

The decision to drop out of the Republican U.S. Senate primary was about political survival as much as anything, considering the polls showed him trailing Marco Rubio by more than 20 points. But Crist is now talking like a man liberated from the constraints of partisan orthodoxy.

What's he think about President Barack Obama nominating Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court? "I think she'd do a great job," said the candidate who last year opposed Justice Sonia Sotomayor when conservative activists were turning on him.

"Isn't that fun?" he asked, when board members looked momentarily taken aback by his direct answer.

"Honesty is the best policy," he said, adding later, "It's easier (as an independent). I don't have to sort of think about, 'How's that group going to react?' "

Crist, 53, acknowledged he may be a long shot to win the general election without the political infrastructure and institutional support that comes with being a party nominee. To manage his multimillion-dollar statewide campaign, he has brought on board his older sister, Margaret Wood of St. Petersburg, a former teacher.

"The odds are that, come September and October, it's going to be real unpleasant for me because there are two enormous entities that don't want me to win," he said.

But he is also a powerful governor who can veto bills and easily command media coverage, and who is talking about calling two special legislative sessions — to ban drilling near Florida beaches and to enact anti-public corruption measures in Florida — that would keep him at the center of attention.

"I'm the sitting governor of the fourth-largest state in the country. Ross Perot couldn't say that," Crist noted. "I still have the opportunity to do things that might help (Floridians), and I still have the opportunity to stop things that might hurt them."

And what if he calls back the House and Senate, but they reject all of his proposals?

"I think they'll get their due in November," he said. "That's the power of democracy. If you put forward something that's a good, decent idea and they thumb their noses at it just because, I think there's a consequence called an election."

Crist spent weeks attacking Rubio's character, but that was yesterday. Now he's all about civility and sounded downright disgusted that so many party activists would be outraged about that famous picture of him embracing America's president.

"It sickens me to watch cable TV and see these people argue all day long," Crist said. "I think to myself, what in the world are they doing? Do they care so much about their party first that they've forgotten about their country and our people? And that they need a voice and somebody has to stand up and get something done for America."

He noted how Republican Utah Sen. Bob Bennett just lost the GOP nomination at a state convention.

"There's an anger and a frustration and kind of a fever pitch, and I don't think anything he did would have made any difference, and I think the same would have been true of me," Crist said. "The truth is there are different parts of the party, and I think the primary activists in my former party have become regrettably extreme. And I think the same is true of the Democratic party for that segment of the party."

The Rubio campaign scoffed at Crist's comments.

"Charlie Crist was only a proud Republican until the moment he realized he couldn't win an election due to his support for wasteful stimulus spending, tax increases and liberal judges," said campaign spokesman Alex Burgos. "If Charlie Crist felt so tortured as a Republican, then he should have no problem liberating himself entirely by returning Republicans' campaign contributions."

Crist was blunt about not honoring requests for refunds, which he said are few anyway: "I want it. I need it. I want to win."

He was asked about his responsibility for the spending scandals at the state GOP under the leadership of ousted former chairman Jim Greer. Crist firmly stood behind Greer amid widespread criticism and allegations.

"The scandal? None. The overspending? Some. Maybe I was loyal to a fault," the governor said. "Spending more money than you might view as appropriate is maybe not bright, but I don't know if it's scandalous."

If the denunciations from longtime supporters and tough attacks coming from the party he grew up in are hurting, Crist isn't showing it.

"You really learn who your friends are and who they aren't," he said. "It's a little refreshing in that way."

What about longtime friends like appointed U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, who pulled their support?

"I would not say that they're not friends," he responded after a pause. "I would say that maybe they could be a little kinder."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Hear Gov. Crist's talk

Listen to excerpts from Crist's visit to the St. Petersburg Times editorial board at links.tampabay.com.

Charlie Crist unleashed: A wide-ranging interview with the newly independent one 05/13/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 11:51pm]
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