TALLAHASSEE — George LeMieux could only think of one major difference between him and Charlie Crist.
"I like the Dolphins better than the Bucs," LeMieux said in August 2009 just before Gov. Crist appointed him to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat temporarily.
Today, LeMieux is running for the U.S. Senate.
And he's running away from Crist, whose name is toxic to many of the hard-core conservatives LeMieux is courting in a wide-open Republican primary.
"I had many things I disagreed with the governor on," LeMieux said last week.
But Crist administration insiders say they're hard-pressed to remember differences between Crist and LeMieux — his onetime chief of staff, adviser and close friend.
LeMieux didn't just advocate for Crist's policies, he helped shape them. Some are unpopular with conservatives: a global-warming initiative, voting rights for felons, a gaming deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, acceptance of President Barack Obama's stimulus money, an Everglades land purchase that benefited U.S. Sugar, and expansion of the role of government in the property insurance market.
LeMieux once called himself a "Charlie Crist Republican." Insiders chuckle at the idea that Charlie Crist was a George LeMieux Republican.
"Charlie Crist didn't call George 'the maestro' for nothing," said Dane Eagle, who was Crist's campaign travel aide, a special adviser to the governor and then a fundraiser in Crist's failed 2010 bid for U.S. Senate against Marco Rubio.
For this story, Crist would only say that he was "grateful for George LeMieux's service to the people of Florida."
Even while he served in the U.S. Senate, LeMieux was a proxy for Crist. Once, at a private lunch, he cautioned senators from endorsing Rubio. But once Crist left the Republican Party in the spring, LeMieux campaigned against his friend — the man who elevated the once little-known Fort Lauderdale lawyer to the highest levels of state government and who was called "Uncle Charlie" by LeMieux's three boys.
"The governor never spoke about it, but that hurt him," Eagle said. "It was tough."
LeMieux said he had little choice.
"Our relationship is strained. I feel sad about it. But I'm not the one who left the party. I stood by my principles," LeMieux said, an echo of a line that has drawn applause from Republicans.
"This was not an easy thing for me to do for me personally," he said. "I was disappointed he ran for Senate. I thought he should run for governor, not run for Senate. I thought he should have stayed in the Republican Party."
LeMieux gives few specifics about the policies he took issue with. He said that, as an attorney, he avoids discussing specific conversations he has with clients. When he talks about Crist, he spends more time on his former boss' stint as attorney general and, when he was governor, as a cutter of taxes and spending.
"At some point in his administration," said LeMieux, who served as Crist's chief of staff from 2007 to 2008, "he started moving toward the left. That's not when I was there."
But Republicans groused that Crist was moving to the left almost as soon as he got in office. Crist used his tremendous popularity to force the GOP-held Legislature to expand the role of Citizens Property Insurance — a move that LeMieux still says is a good idea.
"He felt like these insurance companies were hurting everyday Floridians," LeMieux said. "He didn't want people paying sky-high premiums."
On a controversial cap-and-trade plan Crist pushed, LeMieux told the Palm Beach Post in 2007 "that the jury is in now, and we know this is an issue. We can't afford to ignore it and be wrong (about climate change)."
Last week, LeMieux said: "I don't know if we're having man-made climate change. And I think that the jury's out on it."
LeMieux, who helped negotiate a deal to expand gaming for the Seminole Tribe, stands by the proposal. The first version was thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court when then-House Speaker Rubio sued because it expanded gaming without legislative sign-off.
LeMieux said the pact limits gambling in Florida and ensures the state will have more money for education.
He said he's against casino gaming.
Michelle Todd, a former special adviser to Crist, said LeMieux was the architect of the Seminole deal and recalled him hosting conference calls to give administration officials their talking points and marching orders.
"I was on that conference call," Todd said. "He sounded pretty pro-gaming to me."
After LeMieux left the governor's office to return to his old law firm, Gunster Yoakley, in 2008, he and Crist talked almost daily. But he said that changed over time. "The longer it was — the further the separation — the less my advice was sought," LeMieux said.
Jim Greer, the former Republican Party of Florida chairman whom LeMieux helped install for Crist's benefit, said LeMieux was slightly more conservative than Crist, but "he was part of the inner circle for a reason."
Greer signed a little-known $10,000 monthly contract — ultimately worth $150,000 — to pay LeMieux to continue giving Crist advice. LeMieux issued the "LeMieux Report," a Web newsletter that trumpeted and defended Crist.
Greer is facing criminal charges for his handling of party finances — a case that he says is politically motivated by party officials. When Greer led the party, staffers helped write the LeMieux Report in which he justified the Everglades deal with U.S. Sugar, a Gunster Yoakley client. And he defended Obama's stimulus package, which Crist openly supported.
Aside from his consulting for Crist, LeMieux also helped ensure that his proteges — Eric Eikenberg and then Shane Strum — became chiefs of staff when he was gone, said Chris Kise, who recommended that Crist hire LeMieux in the attorney general's office in 2002.
"Charlie always liked to get input from multiple people," Kise said. "George installed people around Charlie — Greer, Eikenberg, Strum, et cetera — who ultimately reflected the opinions of the maestro."
Said Jeff Kottkamp, Crist's lieutenant governor: "Of the three chiefs of staff Charlie Crist had, George was the most active and the most involved in setting policy and charting a course for the administration throughout the years."
LeMieux said all the talk tying him to Crist is politically motivated.
He faces former Florida House Republican leader Adam Hasner, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and retired Col. Mike McCallister in the Republican race. LeMieux said people care more about his core message: reining in government, debt and taxes.
In the U.S. Senate, LeMieux said he got four important initiatives passed as a junior senator to help small business, crack down on Medicare fraud, monitor Russian nuclear weapons and expand trade. "That's my record: I did that in 16 months being the most junior guy in the minority party," he said. "I'm my own man."
Marc Caputo can be reached at [email protected]erald.com or (850) 222-2151.