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On the trail with Charlie Crist, full of charm and chutzpah

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Charlie Crist sits at the back of a mostly empty bus, holding an iPhone to his right ear.

"Hey, Ray," Crist yells to the driver. "How about a Dunkin' Donuts?"

Rolling up the sleeves on his blue dress shirt, purple tie drooping below his belt, the governor ambles up from his seat. He says he prefers Dunkin' Donuts to Starbucks, sparking a broader discussion of how your political registration affects your coffee choices.

It's after 11 a.m. on the third of four straight days on the road, about 900 miles into a 2,700-mile trek that will take Crist's independent U.S. Senate campaign around the state twice.

"Hey, Ray!" Crist says about 30 seconds later. "How's that Dunkin' Donuts coming?"

Ray, or Raymon Land, owns the bus that has been rebranded "The People's Express" in the days ahead of the election. He's using his iPad to find a breakfast stop as a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent assigned to protect Crist looks over his shoulder.

"Ray!" Crist says again.

"About a mile out, sir."

Minutes later, Crist, his wife and a staff of four fall out of the bus. Crist hugs the workers and smacks "Crist for U.S. Senate" stickers on their shirts. He jumps behind the counter and starts grabbing bagels and coffee for customers.

The 10-minute stop stretches four times as long as Crist works the doughnut shop (4 potential votes), a nearby Laundromat (3, if they're registered), a guy walking his dogs (1) and a guy riding a bike with some type of sail (1).

Back on the bus, which is headed for Fort Myers, Crist grabs his coffee with cream and sugar and asks someone for his bagel. But in the crush for votes, no one got him one.

Fighting for nine votes?

Crist, 54, didn't expect such a lonely road when he announced his campaign for U.S. Senate on May 12, 2009.

The popular Florida governor was a year removed from being a potential running mate for John McCain, and considered one of the best hopes of a diminished and marginalized Republican Party.

But Crist's status in the Republican Party was exaggerated, as was the demise of Republicans. Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio helped launch a conservative movement that feasted on moderate Republicans, Democrats — and Crist.

Crist's no-party candidacy for Senate promised moderation, but Florida voted for something else.

Campaigning by bus and plane last week, he didn't know it yet.

• • •

On a stretch between Destin and Pensacola, Crist stands up from his seat to look over the sand and water to his left. "These are the prettiest beaches in Florida," he says.

"We're going to do pretty well here. We practically lived up here for two months during the oil spill."

Crist stops the bus at Navarre Beach, where he takes pictures with a handful of supporters and the beach lifeguard, and politely walks away from a heckler who said he was part of the tea party movement.

Crist takes off his shoes and socks and rolls up his pants to dip his toes in the Gulf of Mexico. "Could you imagine risking that for oil?" he says, looking out over the gulf. "For Marco's Texas buddies? No way."

• • •

Leaving tiny Madison, where he spoke to a group of about 30 seniors, Crist orders the bus to detour to Live Oak, a town in Republican-dominated Suwannee County. He stops at the county courthouse hoping to find potential voters, and meets one: 30-year-old teacher Melissa Ray. She's supporting Crist for vetoing an education bill that would have linked teacher pay to student performance. Teachers meet him at every stop with a similar message.

The bus then rolls to a restaurant where Crist cooks up mushrooms and talks with the waitstaff dressed up for Halloween, then moves to a community yard sale.

He spends as much time talking to children and out-of-state visitors as he does potential voters.

"I hope he wins," says 15-year-old Katelynn Gamble.

• • •

Though minus a political party, Crist isn't alone. His wife, Carole, takes up a seat next to him on the bus.

She acts as more cheerleader than first lady, bouncing out of the bus holding two signs, one for Crist and another showing a copy of the statewide ballot, where Crist is listed ninth. She makes sure to find her way behind Crist when he's talking to TV cameras.

This is Carole's first campaign with her husband since their marriage in December 2008. Crist sometimes loses her in the crowds, like the one that surrounded him in Hollywood Beach.

But when he was meeting a Jewish woman, Crist was sure to introduce the two. "This is Carole," he says. "She's a nice Jewish gal from Long Island."

"Long Island!" the woman responds happily.

• • •

From the Panhandle to Jacksonville, Orlando to West Palm Beach, Fort Myers and around again, Crist's shtick seems corny, but it's working.

Crist feels it.

When he says Rubio wants to abolish abortion by overturning Roe vs. Wade, he always says "literally overturn" but emphasizes it "litch-er-ral-ly." When he says the line, aide Danny Kanner makes a motion like he's flipping a pancake.

At a speech in St. Pete Beach, he talks about America's last and only independent president, George Washington. "How do you think George Washington tests?" Kanner grouses.

And in Destin, Crist tries to explain to supporters that he's listed ninth on the statewide ballot. "I'm No. 9 in your program, but I hope I'm No. 1 in your heart," Crist says, "because you're No. 1 in mine. I'm not kidding."

• • •

On Election Day, he's up before dawn dressed in a suit, ready to vote.

He waves signs, he hops on a county bus looking for votes.

"We're going to have a nice surprise," Crist says. He believes it.

Faith in Floridians, after all, helped him decide to leave the Republican Party and run for the Senate as an independent. Faith in Floridians pushed him through the 1,400 road miles and 1,338 sky miles in a five-seat King Air airplane in the campaign's final four days.

In the end, Crist would lose by more than 1 million votes, and Rubio is declared Florida's next U.S. senator the moment the state's last polls close.

In his concession speech, Crist says: "This is the greatest state in the country, and you are the greatest people in the world. You'll always have my heart."

As he leaves the stage, Crist hugs a few friends before dipping behind a partition into a separate ballroom. Cameras flash, and supporters strain to see him one last time.

Aaron Sharockman traveled with Gov. Charlie Crist for the four days before the election, logging more than 2,700 road and air miles and making 24 campaign stops. He can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

On the trail with Charlie Crist, full of charm and chutzpah 11/05/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 7, 2010 12:35pm]
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