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Crist at his best, pouring on his nice-guy persona

TALLAHASSEE — Wearing a light blue polo shirt and a dark blue windbreaker, Gov. Charlie Crist bounded out of his office and headed to the nearest elevator. He was shadowed by a pair of men in dark suits — a state law enforcement agent and press secretary Sterling Ivey.

As Crist passed the reception area of the Attorney General's Office, where he used to work, he waved at receptionist Naomi Howard-Dillon, whom the governor says gives "the best hug in town."

"I'll be back!" Crist shouted.

The man never misses an opportunity to be nice to somebody.

It was Wednesday morning. Crist had just received an enthusiastic welcome from the leaders of the state's tourism agency, VisitFlorida, and now was carrying out routine duties of his job — taping video spots, doing a TV interview, meeting with a state official.

Even the most mundane encounter is a chance for Crist to shake everyone's hand, say hello and offer something flattering. At the ninth-floor studios of WFSU-TV, home of the Florida Channel, Crist complimented a young woman on the bright purple color of her blouse. "I wore it for you," she said, and Crist burst out laughing.

If Crist is to beat the odds and attain membership in the world's most exclusive club, the U.S. Senate, this is going to have to be how he does it: by pouring on his nice-guy persona at every possible opportunity, and by keeping his name and his face before as many people as possible.

The Republican governor, the nonpartisan U.S. Senate candidate, and the nice guy from St. Petersburg are rolled into one now, with the debate over a pending abortion bill coming to a head.

It appears certain Crist will veto HB 1143, which would require women seeking abortions to pay for an ultrasound and hear a description of the embryo before undergoing the procedure.

Crist's office has been bombarded with more than 20,000 e-mails and phone calls on the issue, and says messages in support of the bill are running slightly ahead of the opponents. A sampling of his e-mail shows some people are linking his decision to his Senate candidacy.

"Congratulations on choosing to run for the Senate as an NPA. It was the correct choice," Dee Berringer of Seminole wrote of his decision to run with no party affiliation. "Now do the right thing and veto that horrible abortion bill."

Call it pandering or populism, but Crist prefers to follow public opinion. In this case, his gut tells him it's a bad bill and the only people who would approve him signing it are social conservatives who won't vote for him anyway.

Across the arc of his political career, Crist has called himself pro-choice, pro-life and pro-family. When questioned about abortion generally, he wavers, preferring to change the subject to adoption instead. He calls himself a "live and let live kind of guy" and does not like it when government intrudes into people's personal lives.

The Republican Legislature did Crist a huge favor by passing the ultrasound bill. When Crist vetoes it, abortion opponents and quite a few Republicans will blast him for pandering to the pro-choice crowd. That is exactly the reaction Crist wants, to be viewed as a political moderate who calls 'em as he sees 'em.

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

Crist at his best, pouring on his nice-guy persona 05/14/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 9:27pm]
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