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GOVERNOR EXHORTS EVERYONE TO GIVE

Charlie Crist never misses an opportunity to encourage anyone to contribute to his campaign.

Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan remembers walking through the mall on a weekday afternoon when a familiar name popped up on his cell phone: Charlie Crist.

The governor wanted to talk logistics about a fundraiser for his U.S. Senate campaign. Morgan offered to host a series of events, but Crist preferred a single blowout.

"What's our target?" Morgan asked.

"Let's do a million," Crist replied.

Morgan reeled. "One thing I love about Charlie Crist," he said later, "he never gives you the opportunity to underperform."

After President Barack Obama made history with a vast online network of small donors, Crist raised a record-breaking $4.3 million the old-fashioned way - one big personal check at a time.

He dials the numbers himself. He asks about the wife and kids by name. And then, without flinching, Crist makes "the ask."

I need your help, buddy. I can't do it without you. We're going to bring change to Washington, the Florida way!

From dozens of interviews with Crist's campaign contributors and advisers, a picture emerges of a gracious arm-twister who lavishes donors with praise, solicits their opinions - and then demands to know how much and by when.

When donors come up short - or even if they don't - Crist calls again.

Can you dig deeper?

"Charlie doesn't have any shame," said lobbyist Ron Book.

"Let's just say that you can't say no," said Miami developer Armando Gutierrez.

"He will not let you off the phone until you make the commitment," said Jacksonville insurance executive Michael Hightower.

When Crist suggested the million-dollar goal in Orlando, Morgan responded bluntly: "Are you f - - - - - - out of your mind?"

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Crist's $4.3 million, recession-proof sweep in the first 50 days of his campaign obliterated the record set by Mel Martinez, who collected $1.7 million at the start of his 2004 Senate bid. Nationwide, political giant Rudy Giuliani is the only Senate candidate to have ever outraised Crist in a three-month period.

Crist's campaign expects him to raise half as much in the traditionally slow fundraising quarter that ends this month as he did between April and June.

"It was a stunner," former Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas said of Crist's fundraising debut. "I didn't think doing that amount of money in this environment was humanly possible."

Does his success come from his sheer willpower to call as many as 200 people on a Monday morning? The nerve to hit up total strangers and even political adversaries? A year-round regimen of calling donors on federal holidays?

Or maybe it's this: He's the most powerful politician in the nation's fourth-largest state. Millions of dollars change hands, public policy is enshrined, and judicial appointments are sealed with a flick of his Sharpie pen.

"He's a popular, sitting governor, and many believe his victory in the Senate race is unquestionable," said Cardenas, a lobbyist with a long client list in Tallahassee who passed over his one-time protege, former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, to endorse Crist.

Critics say the governor's fervid fundraising - which began just 17 months after his inauguration and averages $86,000 a day - has gotten in the way of his day job.

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Closed-door fundraisers are slipped between made-for-television appearances at hospitals, schools and firehouses, leaving voters with the impression of a small-town mayor instead of a career politician married to a New York businesswoman.

Local television viewers recently got a glimpse of Crist and Monroe County Commissioner Mario Di Gennaro in shirt sleeves, wading into the ocean to release a rehabilitated, 280-pound sea turtle. Hours later, after the camera crew was gone, Crist sat down to a $1,000-per-person dinner at the commissioner's Tuscan-style, waterfront home.

Last week, Crist paused to ask a bellman's name before striding into the glamorous Fontainebleau hotel on Miami Beach.

"Charles," replied the 32-year-old in a white uniform jacket. "Me too!'' Crist exclaimed, grasping the hand of his newest supporter.

Crist works hard at creating a feeling of intimacy at a time when politics is increasingly conducted via e-mail, social networking sites and credit card transactions.

Even Rubio, who collected only $340,000 between April and June, outraised the governor online, $140,000 to $51,885.

Crist is the rare politician who prefers a flip-phone to a BlackBerry. He shuns e-mail, volunteers his phone number and handwrites thank-you notes. Donors clamor for the personal attention.

Miami lawyer Manny Kadre remembers Crist calling when his wife was in labor. Have her call me when the baby is born. Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, got a text from the governor when he took his son to orientation weekend at the University of Florida. Tell Bradley, best of luck.

In person, Crist can work a room - without looking over anyone's shoulders.

"He makes you feel like the only thing on his mind at that moment is you," Barreto said. "It's one on one, with total eye contact and attention."

Democrats get the same treatment, earning Crist raves for bipartisanship while quietly swelling his fundraising pool.

The day after Democrat Rod Smith lost the 2006 gubernatorial primary, Crist placed a sympathetic call to one of the campaign's top money men, lawyer Danny Ponce. Crist was also one of the first to call Ponce after his father died.

In January 2008, the governor appointed the diehard Gator fan to the University of Florida's board of trustees.

"He practices politics in a very personal way, and it's hard to say no," said Ponce. His fundraiser for Crist last week in Gainesville was the first he ever hosted for a Republican.

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Crist's most successful campaign event so far was hosted by some of the state's best-known Democratic trial lawyers, including Morgan. The June 12 cocktail reception at an Orlando hotel and steak dinner at Morgan's home raised about $300,000, approaching Rubio's three-month take.

Crist has raised so much money from so many corners of Florida that it's hard to yoke him to any one special interest group. He's beholden to no one and to everyone.

Asked how many phone numbers are saved in his cell phone, Crist said, "Not enough." He laughed. "Always need more. Got to reach out."

He added, "I'm blessed to have dear friends and I like to work hard. It's that simple. ... I love people. I love to talk to them about everything."

Crist's fundraising zeal more than compensates for the lack of a name-brand political consultant. His finance director, Dane Eagle, is a 26-year-old rookie who carried his bags during the 2006 campaign.

Crist's former campaign manager, recently appointed U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, recalls urging the new candidate for governor on a Sunday to reach 50 supporters the next day. Crist made 200 calls between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m, waking many donors out of their beds.

"It not only got the job done but it created a buzz. We raised $1 million at our first event, which was unheard of," LeMieux said.

The governor leaves nothing to chance. He once urged a donor to send a check to his home address in St. Petersburg, making it hard to weasel out of the pledge. He pushed a businessman on vacation to get his assistant to wire money from his bank, recalled Vivian Myrtetus, a former spokeswoman for the governor.

"He's relentless. He doesn't take the first answer," she said. "If they say no the first time, that doesn't mean they get crossed off the list."

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For someone who raises so much cash, Crist appears to lavish little on himself. He eats one small meal a day. He pays off his only credit card every month. He frequently flies commercial, and his campaign pays only three full-time employees and an accounting firm.

"Don't be surprised to see him sitting in 23C and staying at the Radisson," said Miami political consultant Carlos Curbelo. "He takes the time to talk to every single person who crosses his path."

Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer, was walking past the Dippin' Dots ice cream kiosk at the Seminole Town Center Mall on the day Crist called about the upcoming fundraiser.

"Hold on," Morgan told Crist, "The Dippin' Dots woman is trying to talk to me."

"Put her on," Crist said.

Morgan did. "I just got you another vote," he told Crist after retrieving his phone from the delighted purveyor of flash-frozen beads of ice cream.

Crist didn't pause. "Make sure you invite her to the fundraiser."

Miami Herald staff writer Cammy Clark contributed to this report.

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