FORT MYERS — President Obama visited one of Florida's most economically ravaged communities Tuesday, where Gov. Charlie Crist showered him with the kind of bipartisan love that has eluded the president in Washington.
"We know that it's important that we pass a stimulus package,'' Florida's popular Republican governor said amid "Yes, we can!" cheers as he introduced the Democratic president. "This is not about partisan politics. This is about rising above that, helping America and reigniting our economy."
But that's a minority view among Crist's Republican colleagues. Not a single Republican U.S. House member voted for the stimulus bill, and when the $838 billion package passed the Senate on Tuesday all but three Republicans voted against it, including Florida Republican Mel Martinez.
Still, with one of John McCain's former vice presidential prospects embracing him at Tuesday's town hall meeting in Fort Myers, the president could at least briefly bask in the glow of bipartisanship.
"The thing about governors is they understand our economic crisis in a way that maybe sometimes folks a little more removed don't understand,'' Obama said of Crist.
"Gov. Crist shares my conviction that creating jobs and turning this economy around is a mission that transcends party. And when the town is burning, you don't check party labels. Everybody needs to grab a hose, and that's what Charlie Crist is doing right here today."
Senators passed the bill on a 61-37 vote, setting the stage for difficult negotiations with the House, which passed a different, $820 billion version earlier. Congressional leaders hope to complete the negotiations in time for Obama to sign it Monday, Presidents Day.
But despite support from a handful of Republicans like Crist, the final product is sure to be a Democratic one.
"The people of Southwest Florida, and indeed the nation, want to see a plan that will get our economy moving, not a plan that is chock-full of spending for pork and special interests," said Rep. Connie Mack, a Republican who represents the Fort Myers area.
But the view from Tallahassee, where state lawmakers face a budget deficit of nearly $6 billion next year, is different from the view in Washington. The stimulus package could funnel as much as $13 billion into Florida.
"I'm not going to tell you that this plan is perfect — it was produced in Washington," Obama said in Mack's hometown. "I also can't tell you with 100 percent certainty that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act in the face of this crisis will only worsen our problems."
The president has been on a campaign-style swing through hard-hit communities to marshal support for the plan, warning of dire consequences if Congress fails to act. In Florida, he chose a community where 12 percent of homes are in foreclosure and the unemployment rate has climbed from 3.5 percent to 10 percent in less than two years.
"Please help,'' an emotional Henrietta Hughes beseeched the president after explaining that she and her family were unemployed and living out of a vehicle. "The housing authority has two-year waiting lists, and we need something more than the vehicle and the parks to go to."
Recent polls show an overwhelming number of Florida voters approve of both Crist's and Obama's performance in office, but Crist's support of the stimulus package has some Republicans grumbling.
"Charlie Crist goes wobbly in the knees every time he hears Barack Obama's voice. Obama is just using Charlie Crist, who would stand with him as long as it translates into press,'' said Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant in Miami. "Politically, Charlie Crist is putting the Florida Republican federal elected representatives in a very tough spot."
Crist canceled a lunch with Jeb Bush and other former governors to attend the Obama event Tuesday. In Tallahassee, Bush told a reporter that he opposed the package, calling it "a whole lot of spending and it's not very stimulative."
While tempering expectations for a quick economic turnaround, Obama acknowledged that Americans ultimately expect results.
"I'm not going to make any excuses,'' Obama said. "If stuff hasn't worked and people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction, then you'll have a new president."
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.