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Published Feb. 11, 2008

Hillary Clinton thumped her Democratic rivals in Florida last week. But looking at North Florida results, the conclusion seems inescapable: Clinton is ominously weak in the Panhandle, a region where Democrats need to hold their ground if they want to win the state. All of the 19 counties Clinton lost in Florida were in North Florida.

John Edwards won 11 rural North Florida counties, while Barack Obama won eight counties, including Escambia and the liberal university counties of Alachua and Leon.

A recent internal poll for Florida House Democrats obtained by Buzz highlights Clinton's challenge: 50 percent of Florida voters have a favorable view of the New York senator, and 48 percent have an unfavorable view. Obama is viewed favorably by 59 percent and unfavorably by just 32 percent.

On the other hand, we can point to some troubling signs for Obama in Florida, too. Exit polls showed Clinton more than doubled Obama's meager 28 percent share of Hispanic votes in the Democratic primary, for instance, and his 26 percent share of the Jewish vote. Obama did receive nearly three out of four African-American votes.

"In the general election," Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said, "Floridians will have a choice between a candidate who wants to fix our economy, end the war in Iraq and provide universal health care vs. a candidate who supports the Bush economic policy, the war, and opposes universal health care. In that matchup, we like our chances - and that goes from the Panhandle to the Keys."

McCain gains a familiar traveling buddy

One of the reasons Gov. Charlie Crist moved up the release of his budget recommendations was so that he can travel with Sen. John McCain in a series of out-of-state presidential events on Monday and Tuesday.

Buzz hears that Crist will appear with McCain at a New York City fundraiser on Monday night. And Crist is also tentatively set to join him in Connecticut, Missouri and Arizona on Super Tuesday. They'll end the day in Phoenix, at what the Arizona senator hopes will be the clinching of the GOP nomination.

For now, we can still call him governor

Vice President Crist? His pals are touting his prospects, and after his big assist to McCain it's hardly out of the question. Former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, in a Political Connections interview airing today at 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Bay News 9, said Crist is likely to be on a short list of running mate prospects. But at 71, McCain must choose someone perceived as presidential.

"I don't think you can get someone that isn't perceived by the public as totally capable of taking that office immediately because of the age of John McCain," said Martinez.

Democratic poll confirms Crist's popularity

More data from that internal Democratic poll of Florida voters: Crist was viewed favorably by 69 percent and unfavorably by just 14 percent. George W. Bush was 42 percent favorable/56 percent unfavorable. Republican Sen. Mel Martinez 45/27; Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson 59/18.

House ex-speaker apologizes for remarks

A contrite former House Speaker Allan Bense says he regrets remarks he made last weekend in a Mitt Romney campaign conference call criticizing Crist for endorsing McCain, and said he would apologize to Crist. Bense suggested, wrongly as it turned out, that Crist would cost McCain votes in the Panhandle because Crist is too moderate. "My remarks were inappropriate," said Bense, a Romney supporter.

Elections chief has a challenger

Oldsmar City Council member Greg Rublee has filed to challenge Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, promising to be a "more reliable" elections chief and to serve just one term.

"Deborah Clark has said over and over that she does not see the value in purchasing voter-verifiable ballots and equipment, nor has she been willing to expand voter access during early voting," Rublee said. "Where she is satisfied with the status quo, I see a need for improvement."

Under lights, mystery of Crist's fan revealed

Having heard a number of people raise this pressing issue and because Buzz is all about substance, it seems worth noting one of the biggest surprises of Election night: Crist sweats. A lot.

We're quite sure that's not a disqualifier for vice president, but after seeing our gov glowing behind McCain at Tuesday night's victory rally in Miami, we at least we know why Crist insists on having a fan blasting away at him during press conferences.

Adam C. Smith and Steve Bousquet contributed to this week's Buzz.