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Column: Crist missed spotlight but won points for staying at helm

As Hurricane Ike took aim at Texas, Gov. Charlie Crist decided it was finally safe to leave.

The EOC, that is.

After hunkering down for many of the previous 25 days at the bunker-like state Emergency Operations Center, Crist put on a coat and tie and went to his spacious Capitol office instead, and looked very happy to be there.

That morning, like most, Crist clicked on Bay News 9's Web site to check Ike's projected path. The satellite imagery told him he didn't have to go on TV and warn people a storm was coming and to buy spare batteries for their weather radios.

The marathon storm watch began four weeks ago today, during the approach of Tropical Storm Fay, when Crist visited the Pinellas County EOC.

In the nearly four weeks since then, Democrats and Republicans nominated their candidates for president and vice president, the state held a primary election, another school year started and many Floridians got their preliminary tax notices in the mail.

Through Fay, Gustav and Hanna, Crist wore those workmanlike short-sleeved shirts with an emergency logo on it and the solemn expression of a leader coping with a weather crisis.

Day after day, Crist stood at a podium and said: "Be safe. Be vigilant."

Crist was reminded, repeatedly, that in the teeth of hurricane season in Florida, the governor must be on the scene and in charge. Any distraction can spell big trouble.

He has been a target of "Empty-Chair Charlie" jabs from Democrats, who have questioned Crist's devotion to his job. But his poll numbers remain strong — 61 percent approval in this week's new Quinnipiac poll and 50 percent approval from Democrats.

In an interview, Crist voiced disappointment that he had to skip the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and that he rejected advice from friends to go there.

"Several people advised me, 'You can just come up here. Get on a plane at 5 and be back by 10, and make the speech, and who could criticize you for that?'^" Crist recalled. "My thought was, anybody who wants to. And they would have the right to."

It would have been a huge moment in the national spotlight for Crist, the one big-state governor who kept his state in Republican control in 2006.

Crist was slotted as a prime-time speaker on the final night of the convention, Sept. 4, a day when the threat from Hanna had eased considerably. That day the focus was shifting to Ike, which was still far, far away but which posed a threat to Florida.

It's a risk Crist wasn't willing to take.

"Perceptions are reality in my business," Crist said.

He taped a convention speech, but it never aired, officially making Crist a nonentity at the big party.

In his mind was the nagging thought that Gustav could "take a Charley," as Crist calls it, and quickly change course. That's what Hurricane Charley did in 2004 when it swerved and blasted Port Charlotte.

"I'm an ambitious guy," Crist said. "But I have to understand that my energy needs to be devoted to the people of Florida first, and I try to do that."

On Monday morning, with the forecast for good weather, Crist plans to travel to Jacksonville for a pancake breakfast with Sen. John McCain.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Column: Crist missed spotlight but won points for staying at helm 09/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 4:45pm]
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