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Crist stays as close to center as he can

Gov. Charlie Crist does not fit the label of a “Jeb Bush Republican.”

Gov. Charlie Crist does not fit the label of a “Jeb Bush Republican.”

A hotel lobby in Miami was crawling with Republican governors this week, but Charlie Crist was huddling with a leading Democrat, state Sen.-elect Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.

Having persuaded the governor to extend early voting before the election, Gelber had a new mission: With the budget bleeding red ink, he wants Crist to review state sales tax exemptions, an idea that horrifies most Republicans. Crist listened, but made no promises.

Political survival tells Crist to stay as close to the center as he can.

For two days, talk at the Hotel Intercontinental was partisan. But Crist kept talking about "working with Democrats" and told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he governs by having "almost a nonpartisan way of getting things done."

Two years ago, Crist answered a hard-right challenge from Tom Gallagher by playing to the conservative base and calling himself "a Jeb Bush Republican," a label not altogether fitting.

Crist won a three-way race for governor with 52 percent of the vote, and for two years has glided toward the middle on issues like climate change and civil rights for released felons. At the same time, he tries to say and do just enough to avoid alienating the GOP base.

He has put two conservative white men on the state Supreme Court, and the libertarian Cato Institute awarded him an "A" for fiscal policies, one of only three governors rated so high. He firmly opposes raising taxes.

But Crist says he respects Barack Obama's Florida victory and Democratic gains in voter registration that nearly produced wins in Jacksonville and Sarasota, an idea unthinkable a few years ago.

That's the electorate Crist would face in two years, and it will nudge him to the left.

To succeed, Crist says, Republicans must show "results," and the question for him is, will people think he kept his promises? Will they judge him as having significantly cut property taxes and property insurance premiums?

At the governors' big dinner Thursday night, he was introduced as having been honored by the NAACP and the National Rifle Association, and he gave a speech that would have sounded right at home at a meeting of the Democratic Governors' Association. The only red meat in the hall was the filet mignon.

The man who used to call himself a "Jeb Bush Republican" said this: "We ended the tragic cycle of politicizing issues that affect real people in a real way."

Of President-elect Obama, he said, there's "more that unites us than divides us," and "embracing cultures and lifestyles will make us a better party and better leaders."

This from a governor who backed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, though he showed no fervor for it and refused to let the state Republican Party spend money to support it. But as Crist surely anticipated, 62 percent of voters approved it.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Crist stays as close to center as he can 11/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 16, 2008 6:33pm]

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