As Charlie Crist welcomed a group of reporters into the Governor's Mansion Thursday for a year-end interview, he realized he'd lost track of press secretary Sterling Ivey.
"Where's Sterling? Uh-oh. I'm unstaffed," Crist said. "Better get used to that," he quickly added.
Indeed, in a few weeks the many trappings of power will all be gone for Florida's 44th governor. No more staffers at his beck and call. No more nights spent in the elegant mansion on Adams Street in Tallahassee. No more squads of state agents opening doors and escorting him everywhere.
Crist so alienated himself from his former party, you can almost hear Republicans across the state screaming "Good riddance!"
Yet, in these final weeks of his topsy-turvy term of office that is ending on a down note, Crist seems remarkably at peace with his circumstances. He's a guy who arrived with a 70 percent approval rating, and departs as someone who left the Republican Party and suffered a humiliating defeat as an independent U.S. Senate candidate, but he's doing his best to look good on his way out the door.
"Charlie's a classy guy. He's amazingly resilient," said George Sheldon, the secretary of the Department of Children and Families who once ran against Crist (for education commissioner).
In the interview, Crist uttered words that seem ill-suited to this ultimate career politician: "Winning an election isn't everything. There's a lot more to life." Crist is going out with a touch of class, his dignity intact for a possible political comeback.
What people forget is that Crist has lost before. He lost his first bid for elective office as a state Senate candidate in 1986 and he took a shellacking as a U.S. Senate candidate in 1998 against Bob Graham, though that loss laid the groundwork for his future statewide victories.
This time, Crist has a wife, Carole, to help him deal with the emotional wallop of a crushing defeat and the reality that he'll likely never be a United States senator, as well as the endless second-guessing that maybe he should have run for re-election as governor after all.
Crist, ever the gracious host, welcomed his successor, Gov.-elect Rick Scott, and his wife Ann to the mansion for a menorah lighting ceremony to mark the start of Hanukkah. Rabbis and others congratulated him for his demonstrated inclusiveness.
On Wednesday, dozens of staff members in the governor's office lined up with their spouses and kids on a chilly December night to shake Crist's hand and be photographed with him and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.
He helped to throw the switch to illuminate the mansion Christmas tree, a 35-foot Douglas fir festooned with hundreds of LED lights.
Shaking one hand after another, he delivered a stream of Crist-isms: "Good to see ya." "It's a pleasure." "Doing great, thanks!"
On Thursday, Crist hosted his last reception for the capital press corps, and next Monday he will repeat the gesture for the more than two dozen chiefs of state agencies under his command, some of whom will soon be unemployed.
"It's like a farewell tour, but that's life," said Bob Brown-Barrios, a health-care budget expert in Crist's office.
"Life will take you to unexpected places," he said. "When you get there, embrace it."