JACKSONVILLE — Gov. Charlie Crist's stump speech transformed Saturday into a full-throated defense of his veto of Senate Bill 6, as teachers in this GOP bedrock rallied and vowed to "remember in November."
The Republican U.S. Senate candidate, wearing Levis and a golf shirt, took the microphone and gave a detailed explanation of how he went from supporter of the controversial bill to the state's most popular opponent.
Crist attacked the GOP leadership for taking an extreme approach and not listening to the public.
"We got calls in our office," Crist said, "that not only were arms being twisted, they were being broken … to convince them to vote for this thing."
He added later: "You have to kind of scratch your head and think: Who is running the asylum?"
The 100-person crowd at Florida State College at Jacksonville was packed with teachers and parents like Colleen Wood holding "thank you" signs. She gave Crist a new nickname: "Governor Chutzpah."
"It took a lot of guts," the mother of two public school students said. "He's lost some longtime supporters but he gained some new supporters."
Crist shook every hand he could reach as he bathed in the admiration he doesn't find in Tallahassee, where Republican lawmakers are revoking endorsements and backing his GOP opponent, Marco Rubio.
The question of whether he will run as an independent candidate continues to plague him, though he is doing little to quell the speculation.
"If I did it for political reasons, I would have signed it," he said. "I did it for the people."
The legislation, which would have linked teacher pay to student test scores and ended tenure for new teachers, set the Capitol ablaze after Crist vetoed it Thursday.
"Originally, I thought this sounded like a pretty good idea," Crist said. But the bill "got loaded up and people got locked out and not listened to. And when that happens you've got to run because something's wrong."
The Crist campaign, facing more than a 20-point deficit in the polls with Rubio's popularity surging, finds itself in the awkward position of now celebrating support from teachers, a unionized group that leans Democratic.
On the campaign's table outside the college conference room, a clipboard labeled "Teachers for Crist" listed a dozen names. Voter registration forms were stacked high.
At least six people changed their registration to allow them to vote for Crist in his primary contest.
Sharon Jones, 58, a high school science teacher in Jacksonville, said she "never thought in my wildest dreams, if I was dead I'd roll over in my grave," that she would become a Republican.
But "I think Crist earned my vote," she said.
Other supporters held steady and hoped they would get to support him as an independent, which they considered imminent. (Crist must make a decision by noon April 30.)
"I think he has it in the bag if he goes independent," said Donna Flowers, a Democratic teacher.
Later in the evening, at the Guns N' Hoses boxing match between local police and firefighters in the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, Crist realized how much more work is left.
As the ringmaster introduced him, thanking him for supporting police and teachers, half the crowd booed loudly.
Of the boxing match, Crist said: "I feel like I am" in one.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.