CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlie Crist's epic and remarkable political journey continued Thursday, landing the one-time governor and current Republican refugee on center stage at the Democratic National Convention, praising the president he once said would be a failure.
"When I look at President Obama, I see a leader with a cool head, a caring heart and an open mind, a president who has demonstrated through his demeanor, his grace and his deeds that he is uniquely qualified to heal our divisions, rebuild our nation and lead us to a brighter future," Crist told more than 16,000 Democrats at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Crist's 8:35 p.m. speech — hyped by the media, criticized by some Florida Democrats and mocked by Republicans — focused on Obama's swift reaction to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill along with his efforts to help states through the federal stimulus program.
But it also took direct shots at the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — and the Republican Party as a whole.
"As a former lifelong Republican, it pains me to tell you that today's Republicans — and their standard bearers, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — just aren't up to the task," Crist said. "They're beholden to 'my way or the highway' bullies, indebted to billionaires who bankroll their ads and allergic to the very idea of compromise. Ronald Reagan would not have stood for that. Barack Obama does not stand for that. You and I will not stand for that."
Although the speech was one of the more anticipated of the convention, the crowd's response was tepid. The noise level from chatter among delegates rose as Crist read from a TelePrompTer during the 6 ½-minute speech, and officials used Crist's speech as time to ready front-row seats for Michelle Obama and other dignitaries.
Crist, whose trademark fan was affixed to the podium, didn't utter the final line from the prepared text of the speech: "If you see the president before I do, give him a hug for Charlie."
No doubt, it was awkward political theater. As late as three years ago, Crist said Obama's presidency would be a failure. Two years ago, he predicted that Obama's health care overhaul would fail.
Crist made no mention of those pronouncements Thursday before a national TV audience, instead declaring Obama the only choice to lead the nation out of recession.
"I'll be honest with you, I don't agree with President Obama about everything," said Crist, who later told the Times he would campaign with Obama Saturday in Pinellas County. "But I've gotten to know him, I've worked with him, and the choice is crystal clear. When he took office, the economic crisis had already put my state of Florida on the edge of disaster. The foreclosure crisis was consuming homeowners, the tourists we depend on couldn't visit and our vital construction industry had come to a standstill. President Obama saw what I saw: a catastrophe in the making. And he took action."
Crist's words were welcomed by the Obama campaign. Before the speech, first lady Michelle Obama met with Crist and thanked him for the endorsement. From the front row Thursday night she blew Crist a kiss, the Washington Post reported.
Republicans weren't as enthralled.
"This speech was a sad, shameful display of political opportunism where Crist tried once again to shed his own political skin," said Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry. "Charlie Crist proved tonight, as always, that he is only concerned about furthering his own political ambitions."
Obama has been pivotal to Crist's career, triggering a chain of events that led to his leaving the Republican Party in 2010 as his support evaporated during a run for the U.S. Senate.
It started with a 2009 hug in Fort Myers that has become Florida political legend.
"I was proud to embrace him and his plan to keep our teachers, police and firefighters on the job," Crist said Thursday. "Well, that hug caused me more grief from my party than you can ever imagine. But even as the Republican Party fought tooth and nail to stop him, this president showed his courage, invested in America — and saved our Florida.
"We must come together behind the one man who can lead the way forward in these challenging times," Crist said. "My president, our president, Barack Obama."
Crist, 56, arrived in Charlotte on Tuesday, accompanied by his wife, Carole, and his boss, personal injury lawyer John Morgan. They stayed at the Westin Charlotte, a few blocks from the Marriott where the Florida delegates were staying.
While Crist didn't mingle with delegates, and skipped breakfasts with Florida delegates, he did meet with Democratic finance officials throughout the week and attended a private event featuring singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Though still not a Democrat, he's already being talked about as a top contender to win the party's nomination to challenge Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.
But some Democrats said they aren't convinced Crist is sincere.
"He's a flip-flopper," said Karen Cooper Welzel, a Polk County delegate. "Charlie is only looking out for Charlie."
"Charlie is an opportunist; if this were a vegetarian conference, then Charlie would be a vegetarian," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said after Crist's speech.
But Misty Penton, a Tallahassee delegate and educator representing the Muscogee Nation of Florida, said Crist had a good record in stopping programs that would have hurt the environment.
"He's pragmatic," Penton said. "And therefore, I think he's electable."
Times staff writers Alex Leary and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.