Republicans across Florida muted their criticisms of President Barack Obama for a day Sunday so they could take on another well-known enemy: Charlie Crist. The former Republican governor turned GOP pariah endorsed Obama in a carefully timed column on the opinion pages of the Tampa Bay Times. Crist praised the president for supporting stimulus spending, protecting Medicare and standing up for middle-class families, and said Obama always has shown more interest in people than "his political fortunes." Florida's leading GOP voices accused Crist of the opposite on Sunday — of again putting himself first — and speculated he was maneuvering to land a speaking slot at the upcoming Democratic National Convention or to run as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2014.
"For Crist to pull this Obama stunt while Florida faces a hurricane only proves Charlie Crist cares about just one thing: Charlie Crist," said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
"He's dead to me," said A.J. Matthews, a Republican delegate from Tampa.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, called Crist an "opportunist" who's clearly setting himself up to run for governor as a Democrat.
"I believe that philosophies can change over a lifetime, but someone who has any kind of a core philosophy to start with doesn't change 180 degrees," Latvala said.
Republican strategist Brian Hughes, a former spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, called Crist "the Silly Putty of Florida politics. He'll bend and twist in whatever direction you want."
In an interview with the Times on Sunday, Crist said he has no plans to change his party affiliation (he's currently registered "no party affiliation") or to speak on Obama's behalf at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Would he be receptive if asked?
"Probably," he said, adding that he just wanted to be helpful to Obama's re-election. "This will be a very close election, and I just couldn't sit by."
The former self-described "Reagan Republican" insisted his core beliefs have remain unchanged.
"There are things about Reagan that I admire greatly, just as there are about Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt," he said. "But I also admire Harry Truman. … I haven't changed. The Republican Party has changed."
Crist's metamorphosis — genuine, contrived or GOP motivated — is unique in the annals of Florida politics.
Six years ago, while running for governor, Crist happily accepted a $1 million check from the Republican Governors Association, whose leader at the time was Mitt Romney.
Three years ago, speaking to Republicans in Michigan, he predicted Obama's presidency would be a failure and that he would not be re-elected.
Two years ago, he declared his opposition to Obama's health care overhaul, saying: "I don't agree with the guy on hardly anything he does."
This year, he has endorsed Bill Nelson's U.S. Senate re-election campaign over Connie Mack IV, whose father, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack III, was a mentor to Crist. And now Obama.
"He's gone off the deep end," said Thomas Hogan, a state committeeman in Brooksville.
More likely, many GOP insiders say, Crist is planning to run for governor in 2014 as a Democrat.
His law firm, Morgan & Morgan, has purchased TV ads featuring Crist in pseudo-campaign mode, saying "teachers are overworked, underpaid, and for some reason, never fully appreciated."
The firm also has bought billboard space along Florida's Turnpike featuring Crist's familiar tanned, smiling face and the "for the people" slogan.
"For someone to be elected statewide, they clearly need to be affiliated with one of the two political parties," said Greg Truax, a Republican activist and Crist supporter who thinks Scott and the GOP in Florida have veered too far to the right.
Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a former Democratic state senator and unsuccessful candidate for attorney general in 2010, remains an influential Crist ally. He said he has not urged Crist to run for governor, and the reaction by Democratic Party activists would be "mixed." But Crist's moderate views would have some appeal.
"I always thought he was a 50-yard guy," Gelber said. "He squarely had one foot on each side of the 50. That's where he tended to be politically. He wasn't a reflexive ideologue, so I got along with him, even though we disagreed on some things."
Crist said his choice to endorse Obama "was a big decision but not a hard one," recounting "all that he did for Florida" while Crist was governor.
"I lived through a time when this Democratic president was willing to work with a Republican governor on issue after issue after issue," Crist said, adding he has been stunned by how Republican U.S. House leaders have been unwilling to do the same with Obama.
"What's happened in today's Republican leadership is the words 'compromise' and 'cooperation' aren't welcome anymore. If you're that rigid and that doctrinaire, you can't get anything done."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.