Nobody glides through a crowd, a campaign or a relationship with greater ease and charm than the former governor. Friends and foes ask: Is Charlie Crist for real? The answer: It's complicated.
Published Aug. 10, 2014|Updated Aug. 11, 2014

Charlie Crist stood on one side of the pool, and almost all of the rest of the people stood on the other, the glittery Florida portrait between them. The former governor who wants to be governor again had spent the past hour or so at this house of a lawyer on a golf course in Bradenton. He gaped at family vacation photos on the walls, telling the host and his wife, "Show me all your pictures, please." He walked outside to the yard to toss a football with their 11-year-old son, taking off his jacket and handing it to an aide, loosening his pink tie but only slightly, lobbing reliable spirals in the early evening heat, showing no sign of sweat, his pressed blue shirt staying impeccably tucked into the slender waist of his charcoal slacks. One of the guests asked, "Governor, do you ever have bad days?" And he answered, "It hardly ever happens! How can you have bad days? We live in Florida!" He made his way back inside, gliding past an aquarium filled with pretty, flitting fish, past the bar stocked with Crown Royal and Michelob Ultra, past the trays of shrimp and cheese, popping into his mouth a niblet of tuna on a tiny piece of toast. He floated through the crowd, asking for their names, asking about their jobs, thanking them for coming in his pleasing, polished patter, but never lingering for long, before ending up on his side of the pool and calling this state "the prettiest place on the planet." The people had paid up to $500 a head to attend. Now Crist asked them for more.

"Whatever you gave," he said, "double it."

They laughed and clapped.

"I'm not kidding," he said.

They laughed and clapped some more.

"Please," he said, letting the stir subside, waiting for silence. "Because you're not giving it to me. You're giving it to your children. You're investing in their future. You're saving our Florida."

Imagine if Rick Scott got re-elected, Crist told them, "and you didn't give a little bit more ... and it's Wednesday morning after the election day ..." All of Scott's negative ads, Crist said, "I mean, I'm bleeding for you. You watch TV, they're hitting me, every day ... and I'm taking it. And I'm honored to do it."

All politicians say stuff of this sort. Few say it as convincingly as Crist. If politics is a series of interactions that ultimately are transactions, means to an end - give me your money, give me your vote - then Crist, say people who like him, and also people who don't, has an undeniable gift. He can walk into a room filled with mostly strangers, and when he leaves, even if it's just an hour later, everybody feels as if they know him. Feels as if he knows them. Feels good. He makes politics look easy.

It's all the more remarkable because little else about Crist suggests a logical winner. He was divorced and single for most of his adulthood and has minimal private-sector experience. He has had to address rumors that he's gay. He has had to withstand questions over whether he's the father of a daughter from a one-night stand. He has had to listen to chatter that his wife did not speak to her own daughters for nearly three years. His pick for chairman of the Republican Party of Florida went to prison for theft and just published a book portraying Crist as a sociopathic, narcissistic backstabber. Half a dozen other Crist associates also have gone to prison.

And what the 58-year-old St. Petersburg resident is trying to do now should be impossible. It should be impossible to be governor as a Republican and then governor, again, just four years later, as a Democrat. Nobody has ever done that. Polls, though, say Crist has a chance, and a good chance.

He could win in November because he's one of Florida's most famous politicians. He could win because he's running against one of the country's most unpopular governors. He could win, too, he thinks, because people see him as affable and approachable. Because they like him. Because they know him.

But who is Charlie Crist?

Charming or scheming? Focused or distracted? Disciplined or reckless? A lover of people or a user of people? Uncommon empath or unrelenting opportunist?

The answer to all: Yes.

A "vessel," Crist called himself last month. It's unwittingly introspective, an apt description, more true than he even intends. A vessel is empty until it's not. Who do you want him to be? What do you want him to do? He's a devoted listener. Fill him up.

In the eighth grade at Riviera Junior High, Crist ran for student council president, and on speech day, in the gym that doubled as an auditorium, in front of the whole school, he had an idea about what to say.

Crist, 13 years old, preppily dressed with jet black hair, started his remarks with a request, he would recount later in his autobiography.

"Stand up," he said.

The rest of the students thought it was odd. They looked around at each other. But they stood up.

"Now please sit down," Crist said.

They did what they were told.

"Look how much power I have over you," Crist said, grinning, "and I haven't even won yet."

Crist had considered the possibility it wouldn't work. It could have backfired. And it would have, his classmates say today, if almost anybody else had done it. The way Crist said it, though - the timing, the facial expression - it was like he was joking, but not totally, one of the classmates, Becky Palmer, said recently. "You wanted," she said, "to go along with it." Crist would say it was "pointless," except that it wasn't; he would say it "didn't achieve a thing," except that it did. There were about 600 students. He got about 500 votes. Here, then, was his first public demonstration of what could be called political intuition. It was a risk. And it worked.

Detractors have portrayed Crist as a shaker of hands more than a maker of laws, an office-seeker more than an office-holder, not so much a leader as a chaser - a serial campaigner who is seeking not only votes but more elemental affirmation.

The implication has been that there's something unctuous or fabricated about his eager persona. The reality, though, is that the act is no act, say people who have watched him as an adult but knew him as an adolescent. If it's phony, he's genuine.

At Riviera, he was voted Mr. Raider, big kid on campus. At St. Petersburg High School, Crist again was class president, a member of the German Club and the Student Rights and Responsibilities Committee, a quarterback for the football team - a backup quarterback, for the most part, due not only to an injured knee but also ordinary talent. But he was still "Prince Charming" at homecoming. He was the same way at Florida State - vice president of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, vice president of the student body - and in law school at Cumberland, in Birmingham, Ala.

St. Pete schoolmates remember.

"He went out of his way to be friendly," Paul Aucremann said.

"Knew everybody's name," Mark McGarry said.

In high school, "he was one of the guys who looked out for me," said Carl Talbert, a black football teammate. "This is back in '74." How did Crist do that? Such a small act, such a big thing: He said hello in the hallway. "A lot of my teammates didn't do that."

This, too: "He was always running for something," Peter Gairing said.

Was this a conscious reason for his solicitous demeanor, or the natural byproduct? Hard to say. But before it made sense to use the word, Crist was a politician.

"He almost wasn't like a normal high school kid," Crayton Pruitt said, suggesting Crist was strategic about "wanting to be with the right people." He went to the right parties. "I don't think he showed meanness to someone who wasn't a cool kid. He just didn't hang with them. He was with the people who other people wanted to be with."

Mindful of his image, he understood the importance of its upkeep. "We would do things that maybe would be a little rash," Mike Lusignan said, "but Charlie? 'Oh, no, man, I don't do that, I'll get in trouble.'"

Pruitt and Lusignan were two of his closest friends. Not anymore.

"I think Charlie, on the surface, would like to be friends with everybody," Pruitt said. "I think he's good at being superficially good friends with many people. I think he has many, many acquaintances. The number of deep friends he has may be much more limited."

Crist's best friends now? Same as always, he says. His family.

Crist talks from time to time about how his father once told him he's "like a steel fist in a velvet glove."

The fist: his father. The glove: his mother.

Nancy Lee Crist, everyone agrees, is reserved to the point of bashful but gracious and genteel. She's 79.

Dr. Charles J. Crist is more force than finesse, the son of an immigrant from Cyprus with a third-grade education who worked like a piston to own a dry cleaning business and a cafe in Altoona, Pa. His father liked to say it's better to be stubborn than smart. He figured it was best to try to be both. The first-generation American, who as a teen changed his surname from Christodoulos to just Crist, has been a family physician for more than 50 years. He still, every day, at 82, goes to his office. In earlier, busier portions of his life, he was a member of the Masons, the Suncoasters, the Rotary Club and the Yacht Club and served on the boards of the health and mosquito control departments. From 1966 to 1977, he was elected to the Pinellas County School Board, which he ultimately chaired. He was a Republican, generally conservative, although less so on social issues. He earned a reputation on the board for a blunt, even combative disposition. He was a man with some clout in a smaller St. Pete.

The three daughters and one son of Dr. and Mrs. Crist enjoyed what they describe as a tension-free, want-not upbringing - waterfront property in Snell Isle, weekends and summers spent on their boat on the bay and Coffee Pot Bayou, swimming, sunbathing and waterskiing, their mother keeping such a tidy house she alphabetized the cans in the kitchen, their father prioritizing 5:30 sit-down family meals of meat loaf, Lipton-package casseroles, unsweetened iced tea garnished with garden-grown mint, Jell-O with Cool Whip for dessert. Their father sat at the head of the table. Their mother sat in the chair closest to the kitchen.

All four Crist offspring revere their parents. It's hard to have a conversation with the former governor without having them come up. Crist put them, and their marriage, on a pedestal, and still does. His father was 21 when they got married. His mother was 19.

Crist got married for the first time when he was 22, still in his first year of law school in Alabama, to Mandy Morrow, a sorority girl from FSU whom he had dated for two years. The wedding was in Palm Beach County in July 1979. His friends wondered even at the ceremony whether the two were the right fit. They split in December. He filed for divorce in January. It was final in February.

She didn't know why he ended it. Still doesn't.

For Crist, at least according to members of his immediate family, the divorce was a seminal moment. His middle sister, Elizabeth Crist Hyden, says it was the last time - 1979 - that she saw him "really sad." That Christmas break, home in St. Pete from law school, "he was not himself," said his youngest sister, Catherine Crist Kennedy, recalling hunched shoulders and an uncharacteristic pall. "It scared the bejesus out of all of us when he got divorced."

For such a pivotal point, though, Crist in his book described the marriage - its beginning, its dissolution - in a way that feels noteworthy only in its breezy brevity.

They were sitting on a couch in his apartment on a Sunday afternoon, he wrote, when he proposed.

"Really?" she asked.

"Why not?" he answered.

They honeymooned in the Bahamas, and she moved to Birmingham and got a job as an urban planner. They started arguing, he wrote, "about silly stuff." Who was going to clean the apartment. Which brand of toothpaste to get. And he hated, he explained, to argue.

He told his father on the phone his marriage wasn't going well.

"What do you want to do?" his father said.

"I don't know," he said.

"What about getting out?"

When his father said that, he wrote in his book, "it was like a light went on."

The failure of his first marriage did more than make Crist sad and his sisters scared. It made him, his father thinks, more reluctant to make that level of commitment again. Crist values his father's opinion more than anybody's, and his father gave this decision his blessing. It was the beginning of a lifelong trend.

Crist would remain conspicuously unattached for almost three decades. He was engaged again, twice, to the same woman, in the next few years. It made the local society pages. A spring wedding was scheduled for Maryland in 1985. It never happened.

The first political race he ran, in a Republican primary for a state Senate seat, Crist lost to a 58-year-old optometrist who went on to lose in the general election. The next day the winner got congratulatory flowers from Crist. That was 1986.

In '88 and '89, he was the state director for U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, opening a handful of area offices, before joining a brother-in-law in a law practice.

By '92, though, he was ready to run for state Senate again. Like his father, he had become a joiner, increasing his profile around the city thanks to affiliations with the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, the administrative board of the First United Methodist Church, Rotary. He was 36. His boyish first name made him seem younger than that. His hair, because of genes from his mother's side, was now silver-white - set against his perpetual tan, that made him seem older. It bestowed a cosmetic gravitas.

Before the primary, he talked about the state's inadequate tax base and the need to fund education; after the primary, he turned more ardently antitax. He described himself as a "bleeding-heart conservative." He had worked for Mack, and he had watched Ronald Reagan as president, and he had paid attention. The strategy he gleaned was uncomplicated. For Crist, the formula was four E's: education, environment, economy, ethics. His slogan? "The choice for change." Helen Gordon Davis, his opponent, was a longtime Democrat from Tampa hampered by a recently redrawn district. He trounced her.

Crist stood out in Tallahassee almost as soon as he arrived.

It wasn't just the natty clothes, superhuman politeness and game-show-host good looks. It wasn't a keen mind for policy debates; he avoided those when he could. In a state capital packed with oversized egos, Crist was known for his deferential, borderline obsequious manner. But what really set him apart was his innate grasp for what mattered to average Floridians - coupled with uncanny media instincts.

Crist became chairman of the low-profile Senate Committee on Executive Business, Ethics and Elections and turned it into a headline-generating machine. He made life unpleasant for Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, and did it both ruthlessly and ever so civilly. Without the kind of outright meanness that's now commonplace, Crist held impactful and hard-hitting hearings about a computer foulup at the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and investigated state officials' use of state aircraft and misleading phone calls to seniors by the Chiles campaign when he narrowly beat Jeb Bush in 1994.

That December, the FBI released a report showing Florida had the highest crime rate in the country, and so Crist added a C to his E's. He made crime his central issue, advocating longer sentences in more draconian prisons, ably positioning himself as the public face of Florida's reinstitution of chain gangs. He was given the jeering nickname "Chain Gang Charlie." He loved it.

Today, Crist talks about civility and bipartisanship, but Florida's last Democratic governor saw Crist as the main obstacle to that. For instance, Jim Towey, Chiles' idealistic, outspoken head of social services and a former aide to Mother Teresa, lost his post because of Crist's committee. Towey is now the president of Ave Maria University near Naples. He shakes his head that Crist is campaigning as a friend of black voters when he played such a key role in putting so many of them behind bars and in chain gangs. "He can change his image, but he can't change the facts," Towey said. "What I see Charlie Crist doing today is the same thing I saw him doing 20 years ago. He's a master at media manipulation."

Back then, according to Towey, Crist was gracious to him in private even while ripping him in public. Years later, Crist ran into Towey at the White House, where Towey led President George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives. Crist greeted him cheerfully, like they were longtime pals, "happily saying hi to my wife and me when he led my firing when we had two little kids under 3 years old," Towey said. "To him, it was all forgotten. Didn't mean a thing. That's how the guy is wired." Cordial or pathological? Decorous or two-faced? The velvet glove was open to interpretation.

Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on his burgeoning renown, Crist considered running for congressional seats held by C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, and Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, but he ultimately opted for a higher target - the U.S. Senate. Nobody thought Democrat Bob Graham could be beaten in 1998. Crist ran against him. There was more potential reward than risk, and it proved to be among the shrewdest moves of his career. He traveled around Florida endearing himself to influential GOP activists and donors, spreading his name across the state's 10 major television markets. Some pundits rolled their eyes as Crist spouted predictable talking points about abolishing the IRS and impeaching Bill Clinton, but when Crist and Graham met in a televised debate, hosted by Tim Russert, Graham media adviser Anita Dunn eyed a formidable Republican. Crist ended up getting less than 40 percent of the vote, but "it was clear he was extremely talented," Dunn said. "He had a quality on television that was just very reassuring to people."

From there, he hopscotched from office to office.

He ran for education commissioner. Won.

He ran for attorney general. Won.

And he did it without the large campaign apparatus or team of consultants most A-list candidates lean on. Crist relied mainly on his own instincts, a network of political friends he had earned over the years and a few lobbyists and operatives who occasionally would hold strategy calls with Crist, and his father.

Throughout, he showed an unusual ability to raise money; he was a campaign manager's dream, a candidate who didn't just put up with fundraising but loved it. He built considerable reserves, then saved them until the final, critical weeks of a campaign, burying his opponent in ads - often negative ads - on TV. He broke state fundraising records in 2000 when he ran for education commissioner. He did it again in 2002 when he ran for attorney general.

The stories of his chutzpah are legion. When a fundraiser tells him half an hour before the close of a quarterly reporting period that Crist will bring in, say, $1.5 million, he'll lay on the guilt trip: "That's really disappointing. I thought you'd get me to $2 million." When a lobbyist tells Crist he gave him $2,000 but $500 to his opponent? "Every dollar you give to him is like a bullet to my head."

"Charlie will ask you for five times more than you can afford, and you'll end up giving two and a half times more than you can afford," said George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff, once his closest confidant other than his father and now an arch political opponent.

Said powerful lobbyist Brian Ballard, now leading Gov. Scott's fundraising while remaining friendly with Crist: "I've literally seen someone hand him a check for $50,000 for the Republican Party, and Charlie says, 'You should give at least $100,000.'"

Crist's unusual combination of traits and skills - his look, his gift, his tireless raising of funds - made him a vote-getter. A winner. The equation worked.

He was ready to run for governor.

"I have heard that you were gay, sir, and I wanted to know if that was true."

This was Jan. 14, 2005, at a Tiger Bay luncheon in a ballroom at the Wyndham Harbour Island hotel in Tampa. The questioner was a woman named Lee DeCesare, a Democrat from Madeira Beach and a former community college English professor. People fell silent waiting for Crist's answer.

The whispers about whether he was gay to that point had been only that, and private, for the most part. No more. On the one hand, Crist was a thin, fastidiously dressed longtime bachelor who never seemed to have girlfriends except during campaigns and who was so concerned about his waistline he barely ate. On the other hand, his friends, from what they saw, say he unabashedly and successfully pursued women. And his aides? After Crist got into politics, they worried not about whether he was gay; they worried about his tendency to hit on co-eds and the potential for a reputation as a womanizer.

What was remarkable, though, about the Tiger Bay scene wasn't just that the question was asked so explicitly. What was remarkable, too, was the way in which Crist responded.

He was utterly unruffled.

"I'm not," he said.

In a subsequent radio interview, he assured the host, "I love women. I mean, they're wonderful."

In 2006, as his run for governor ramped up, he started dating Katie Pemble, a St. Petersburg banking executive.

But the speculation about his sexuality increased. Allies of Tom Gallagher, Crist's rival for the Republican nomination, spent at least $75,000 trying to dig up conclusive evidence that he is gay. The best they could come up with was a videotaped sworn statement from Dee Dee Hall, an aide on Katherine Harris' U.S. Senate campaign, who said a male colleague named Bruce Jordan had told her he was in an exclusive relationship with Crist. The New Times in Broward, too, reported that another, younger man, Jason Wetherington, told people in South Florida that he had multiple sexual encounters with Crist, and that Jordan was indeed Crist's lover.

We reached Wetherington in the Charlotte, N.C., area, where he now lives. He agreed to say one thing on the record, his response to the question of whether he had a sexual relationship with Crist. "No." Jordan? He couldn't be reached. His mother, in Inverness in Citrus County, said she doesn't know where he's living or how to reach him, and his father told us he wasn't willing to help. "Not a bit," he said.

The dirt diggers trying to sink Crist's gubernatorial campaign did turn up some unrelated tawdry allegations that were more substantial than rumors. Documents from a sealed court file showed that Crist was accused of fathering a child in 1988. The allegations came from St. Petersburg lawyer Rebecca O'Dell Townsend, who was a fellow Pinellas Republican activist with Crist. She said they hooked up at a Feather Sound nightclub and went back to his Bayfront Tower condominium. Weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant. Separated from her husband, she saw Crist at a Republican Party event and told him he was the father.

"That's impossible," she said he responded.

In May 1989, Crist signed legal papers denying paternity: "Parenthood by myself is not possible as I never consummated the act necessary for parenthood." Nonetheless, at Townsend's request, in June that year he consented to the child being adopted; his mother signed as a witness. The Crist campaign pressed to discredit Townsend, noting that she had psychological problems at the time and that she had been going through an ugly divorce. Her father-in-law called her a liar. The campaign had David Zachem, a veteran Republican activist in Pinellas, say he recalled Townsend making the claim about Crist, but that she had personally retracted it later. Asked about it recently, Zachem clarified that Townsend never actually retracted that Crist was the father - what she retracted, he said, was the claim she made back then that Crist forced himself upon her.

"Did she and Charlie have intercourse? I don't know," Zachem said. "Is Charlie that girl's father? I don't know."

Because of a 2006 story about Townsend's allegations that was published in the Times, Marshall and Cecilia Tucker of St. Petersburg realized they had adopted that girl, born June 23, 1989. Kara Tucker was 17 at the time and interested in learning more about her biological family. "It's not that I want anything from him," she said then, "but if he is my birth father, I think my curiosity is justified." The Tuckers discreetly tried to contact Crist, his aides and his family members. They ignored those efforts.

None of this was enough to upend Crist's gubernatorial campaign against Gallagher and Democrat Jim Davis. The Crist campaign and the Republican Party spent nearly $50 million - three times what Davis and the Democrats spent - and Crist ran more than 21,000 ads on TV from the beginning of August to the middle of October. He won handily, becoming Florida's first governor from St. Petersburg.

Before his inauguration, Crist ended his relationship with Pemble. He has a line for this sort of situation.

"I have a mistress. Her name is Florida."

Before he took office, Crist had to select a new chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Crist, LeMieux and Ballard discussed several possibilities while flying on a private plane loaned by one of his top fundraisers, Wellcare CEO Todd Farha. Contenders included LeMieux, former House Speaker Allan Bense, former Broward Republican chairman Ed Pozzuoli - and Jim Greer, a little-known activist from Seminole County, a sycophantic Crist backer and standout fundraiser. Crist settled on Greer.

No one knew then how close Crist and Greer would become, let alone that Greer within six years would be in prison for stealing from the party. And no one knew Greer wouldn't be the only major Crist fundraiser to wind up incarcerated. Farha is serving 36 months for defrauding Florida's Medicaid system; Broward County lawyer Scott Rothstein is serving 50 years for running a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme; Broward ophthalmologist Alan Mendelsohn served 2-1/2 years for public corruption; and Cape Coral real estate investor Greg Eagle, a Crist adviser and donor, is serving six years for bank fraud.

Crist stood in January 2007 in front of the old Capitol in Tallahassee for his inauguration. "We will work together to do what is right," he promised.

Earlier that day, at a prayer breakfast, Crist was mobbed by well-wishers - including, from St. Petersburg, Kara Tucker. Today, she's 25, a lawyer living in Miami who along with her adoptive family still suspects Crist is her biological father. She didn't want to comment for this story. That morning, though,at the breakfast,she wanted to see if he would know. If he would be able to tell. If he would sense some profound connection. He didn't. She was just like everybody else. They shook hands, and he moved on.

A man-of-the-people image and overt niceness and optimism have always been a huge part of Crist's appeal. But those who worked closest with him saw a change when Crist the attorney general became Crist the governor. He seemed to enjoy, a little too much, the national attention, the international travel, the entourages.

Crist's gentle seduction of voters had gotten him into the governor's office.

Now the office began to seduce him.

He could, and would, hop on the private jet of an oil industry billionaire to join rocker and environmental activist Sheryl Crow at an anti-global warming rally in Gainesville.

On a trade mission to Europe, he racked up $1,300 in room service and mini-bar charges and spent $320 just for portable electric fans. Fans are a staple at public appearances for Crist, who is conscious of not letting people see him sweat.

"He was always a humble and respectful guy, but the attention that comes with being elected governor is powerful and can change anyone," said Jim Rimes, a Republican operative who has known Crist most of his political career. "I was surprised that he went from a humble guy to a rock star."

The often impulsive Crist surrounded himself with yes-people, especially Greer, the party chair, who learned quickly that the governor did not appreciate second-guessing or encourage free-flowing, two-way policy talk. No question Crist loved having the job. Did he love doing it? Allergic to arguments, he had risen to a position where he couldn't avoid tough decisions.

We talked to more than a dozen people who worked under Crist in the governor's office, and they say that Crist, the nicest man you'll ever meet, behind the scenes is frequently icy and dismissive. No one would speak publicly about that side of Crist, mindful he could be elected in November. But their anecdotes are strikingly consistent.

If an aide suggested to the governor that he lacked the legal authority to do this or that, he would snap, mockingly: "How many Supreme Court justices have you appointed?"

Where his predecessor, Jeb Bush, periodically spent hours surrounded by staffers debating and discussing the implications of major decisions, it was rare for Crist to carve out even half an hour for briefings. Crist's aides often lacked sufficient time to give him basic pros and cons. If he wasn't travelling, Crist typically showed up at the office after 11 a.m. and left before 3 p.m.

On many issues, particularly health care, everyone around Crist understood that the primary voice that mattered was that of his father. Dr. Crist, home in St. Petersburg, was one of the governor's most important phone calls every day.

Staffers might spend hours prepping for key policy or budget presentations, and Crist would show up 30 minutes late, without apology or explanation, and then spend just five minutes giving orders for what he wanted. If anybody tried to raise a counterpoint, the governor, more than once, abruptly stood up and left the room without saying a word, leaving his aides staring at each other and wondering what to do next.

He had little interest in meeting with mid-level staffers with issue-specific expertise, either, preferring quick, broad-brush explanations from his most senior advisers. If an explanation went too long or involved too much detail or nuance, Crist was known to cut the staffer short, unleashing expletives. "I don't care about those f------ details! This is the way I want it done!"

At least the first year of Crist's administration, employees knew they could get clarity and direction from chief of staff LeMieux, who says his old boss started losing interest in the job of governor during the summer of 2007 - not even a year into his term.

"The campaigning has always had more allure to him than the governing," LeMieux said.

In his book, The Party's Over, Crist recounts the "all-consuming" BP oil spill crisis of 2010 and the regular White House conference calls with gulf state governors.

Here's how Crist's former aides remember those calls:

Gov. Jindal? Here.

Gov. Barbour? Here.

Gov. Crist? Uh, this is Eric Eikenberg, Gov. Crist's chief of staff ...

"I'm not trying to be critical of Gov. Crist, but I don't remember him being on those calls," former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said.

Crist certainly spent plenty of time inspecting the beaches in and around Pensacola and meeting with President Barack Obama and other administration officials with gaggles of reporters in tow. More than anything, leaving the office to mingle with people - press present, cameras rolling - is what motivated the governor. He assiduously courted reporters and focused on his office's media coverage. What drove almost every decision he made was a simple calculation: If I do this, what will the headline be, and will that headline earn me more approval?

"I am," he often reminded his advisers, "the most popular governor in America."

The thing that changed Crist the most, according to members of his inner circle - personally, definitely, but also politically - was the evening in September 2007 when he met the woman who would become his second wife. Crist sashayed into Campagnola, an Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side, for a late fundraising dinner. The guests had saved him a seat beside Carole Rome, a gorgeous, 37-year-old brunette socialite recently separated from her husband. He was in New York mainly to speak about global warming at Bill Clinton's Global Initiative conference, but Harry Sargeant, his billionaire fraternity brother from FSU, wanted to introduce him to Rome, who at the time had homes in New York and South Florida. She had been married since 1993 to Todd Rome, who used to run an investment firm that was shut down by regulators amid allegations of fraudulent activity. He now operates a private jet service. She, meanwhile, earned as much as $1.5 million a year running a Halloween costume business founded by her grandfather.

Crist was smitten.

"Charlie was a changed man from the moment he met Carole, as any man would be - he found something that had been missing," said state Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Fort Myers, who has worked for Crist in a variety of capacities.

A few weeks later, Crist told his staff to add Rome and a friend of hers to the high-profile delegation of Florida business leaders participating in a trade mission to South America. Crist horrified staffers, who say he acted on the trip more like an entitled frat boy on spring break - skipping meetings with dignitaries, showing up late to scheduled events and berating aides for failing to put Rome with him in first class. Somebody got bumped to make room.

The aerospace conglomerate Embraer, a major employer in South Florida, laid out a fancy lunch spread for the governor and his delegation at its headquarters in Brazil. Crist stunned attendees when he suddenly excused himself barely 10 minutes into the meeting, telling LeMieux he was bored.

That night in Rio de Janeiro, Crist left early from a dinner with business executives so he could meet Rome in a hotel lobby. They ran into the actor William Hurt and spent an hour drinking with him in the bar.

Members of the delegation buzzed about whether Crist might be drinking excessively on the trip, particularly after a reception in Sao Paulo for Crist and "Team Florida" hosted by the U.S. Consul General. Crist often ignored speeches and talking points from his staff in favor of quick, unscripted remarks laden with platitudes. That night, he gushed to 400 Brazilian executives gathered at the Casa da Fazenda restaurant about the pretty name of his state, saying "Florida" really means flowery Easter. The long-winded speech left some baffled.

"I recall having a rather uncomfortable conversation with Brazilian leaders at that reception who were wondering, 'Who is this guy? Is this the governor of Florida?' given his incoherent and rambling remarks," said Jorge Arrizurieta, a trade expert from Miami who has known Crist since they both worked for Sen. Mack. He supported his campaign for governor, though he knew Crist had never been an especially prepared or thoughtful leader - but Crist's behavior in South America shocked him. "I always believed he would grow into the job as we all do in any job," he said. "Regrettably, Charlie grew worse. Arrogance and ill preparation are a horrible combination."

By the end of nine days in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, the governor's deputy chief of staff, Arlene DiBenigno, vented to senior Republicans that the governor had embarrassed himself and Florida. LeMieux had to dissuade Erin Isaac, Crist's communications director and a true believer in the governor, from resigning.

And word spread among business and government officials about the hotel room.

"Everybody knows about Charlie trashing that hotel room in Brazil," former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink said a year ago, citing the hush-hush hotel incident as one reason Crist would be "a disaster" as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

It wasn't in Brazil. It was later in the trip, in Santiago, Chile. The Grand Hyatt. Room 1616.

Crist left his room with red wine stains on the carpet, cigarette burns on a bed spread and a sturdy metal trash can crushed as if someone had turned it upside down and jumped on it.

Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development arm, cut a check for $503 to cover damage - to "the room of Mr. Charlie Crist," it said on the invoice.

For months, Crist's staff kept secret the governor's relationship with Rome, who was separated but not divorced. It didn't stop him from accompanying her to Miami Heat games, functions in the Hamptons, a White House dinner party with George W. Bush, even a private meeting in South Florida with Las Vegas gambling magnate Steve Wynn. At a Crist campaign fundraiser at Donald Trump's Manhattan penthouse in December 2007, Rome was asked about a New York Post report that she and Crist had been dating for four months. "That's silly," she said.

Through much of that fall, Crist basked in the attention and courtship of Republican presidential contenders eager to win the endorsement of the popular governor of a big, important state holding one of the earliest primaries, in January 2008. Rudy Giuliani thought he and Crist had a firm handshake deal that Crist would endorse him. The governor backed off as Giuliani's poll numbers slipped. Crist then promised the leading candidates he would stay neutral but ultimately he couldn't help himself. Three days before the primary, Crist endorsed John McCain, who was nearly as surprised as Giuliani and Mitt Romney were apoplectic.

Crist shrugged off their anger. It was characteristic of a man who didn't hesitate to renege on his promise to Bense that he would be the state GOP chairman and who would lead several prominent Republicans to believe he was about to appoint them U.S. senator in 2009 before he picked LeMieux. Crist was known to routinely let lawmakers or lobbyists think he supported their bills only to veto them later.

"People hear what they want to hear," he would say. Or, "I meant it when I said it."

For Florida's presidential primary, the state GOP rented out the presidential suite of the Vinoy in St. Petersburg to serve as a war room to monitor results from the primary and the Amendment 1 property tax ballot initiative championed by the governor. Crist and Rome used the suite. When the state party's events director came in to start setting up for the political team, she found several Vinoy housekeepers in a panic. The carpet had wine stains, clothes were scattered everywhere, and the non-smoking room reeked of cigarettes. A decorative dining room table centerpiece filled with sea shells had been pulled apart, scattering shells filled with butts across the suite.

No one ever sought an explanation from Crist, a closet smoker who still had high approval ratings and that evening celebrated the victory of his ballot initiative - and his new national status as a GOP star who helped deliver the presidential nomination to McCain.

Being governor was getting harder by the day as the recession ravaged the country and Florida in particular. Crist hoped McCain would pick him as his running mate. He spent a fair amount of 2008 blatantly campaigning for the job, appearing at McCain's side in other states and pressing Florida supporters to raise money for the Arizona senator. Pundits linked his July engagement to Rome to part of the governor's positioning for this potential next step. With help from his father, Crist filled out paperwork for vetting by the McCain campaign, but even some of his closest allies suspected McCain would flatter Crist but never seriously consider him, given his baggage. McCain opted for Sarah Palin.

By the end of 2008, Crist was married, Obama was in the White House, and Florida's governor was starting to think about whether there was an office even better than the one he had. U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez was retiring.

The most indelible image of Crist's term came in February 2009. Obama flew to Fort Myers to tout the controversial stimulus package to help the country climb out of the recession. Crist went to introduce him. Almost all of his advisers saw an endorsement of the stimulus as politically problematic, but Crist couldn't resist sharing the spotlight with the new superstar president. On the stage, Crist asked a raucous crowd to "please give a warm Florida welcome" to Obama, and the president walked toward Crist, leaning forward to give him a quick hug. Cameras clicked. Later, in his book, Crist would say it "ended my career as a viable Republican politician."

In May 2009, Crist announced he would be the first Florida governor to forgo a second term and run instead for U.S. Senate. Senators don't have term limits and Carole liked Washington. Everyone assumed he was a shoo-in, but Crist had already set in motion his fall from a political cliff. He had showed little loyalty to his party as he sought support from Democrats and independents, which meant he had no reservoir of goodwill to keep him afloat when Marco Rubio gained momentum in the Republican primary campaign.

It didn't help that Crist steadfastly stood behind Greer despite widespread and credible complaints from the GOP's activist base about his alarming, lavish spending. In his recent book, Greer blames much of that spending on Crist, who wanted the party chairman to travel with him constantly, so the party would pay for Crist's travel, too.

Greer became, quickly, one of Crist's political confidants and closest friends - but he wound up pleading guilty to stealing more than $200,000 from the party by funneling money to a secret company called Victory Strategies. Three of Crist's closest advisers, Ballard, Sargeant and Jay Burmer, said in sworn statements that they believed Crist knew about Greer making extra money for party fundraising. Crist denied it and today calls Greer, who served a 15-month prison sentence, "a convict." Greer's assessment, in his book: "Once Charlie pulls that switch and he's done with you, he's done with you."

Crist's campaign for the U.S. Senate nomination tanked, so he quit - quit the Republican Party - then ran as an independent, which was a predictable failure.

Two years later, he would be a Democrat.

"Charlie Crist changed everything he ever believed in - in the span of a year and a half," Tallahassee Republican strategist Rick Wilson said. "He sloughed it off like a snake skin."

As his political Midas touch turned, Crist was adjusting as well to his status as a stepfather to his new wife's two teenage daughters - difficult for many, but maybe in particular for a self-described "creature of habit" in his 50s. Crist's sisters say he has been a fantastic uncle to their children. Publicly, Crist referred to stepdaughters Jessica and Skylar as "our children" - privately, the relationship was awkward.

"He didn't want them around," said Vanessa Rome, the girls' stepmother. "They were obnoxious kids, like a lot of teens are. They'd say, 'I don't want to eat there,' or 'I don't want to go there.'"

One night in Miami, she said, Crist and his wife and the kids were heading out to dinner when the kids started complaining.

"He snapped, 'I will not have children behaving this way.' He turned around, walked back into the apartment and closed the door behind him," said Vanessa Rome, recounting what the girls told her.

Carole and her daughters went out to dinner themselves.

Aides remember Crist's mood darkening when the girls interrupted a photo op with McCain or intruded on a fundraising reception.

The girls felt self-conscious when their new stepfather, who most days eats no breakfast, no lunch and a light dinner, constantly remarked on their meals.

"Wow, you really like that chicken!"

"Are you going to finish all that?"

Immediately after Miami Country Day concluded the school year in June 2008, Jessica and Skylar flew back to New York to live with their father full time. Carole and Charlie became engaged in July, and after their December wedding, Carole told the staff of the Governor's Mansion not to bother setting up bedrooms for her daughters.

Todd Rome would later accuse Carole of abandoning her daughters and being consistently inaccessible when he needed her to help make joint decisions about them. He turned mum in 2013, apparently after signing a confidentiality agreement. His new wife, however, spoke with the Times.

According to Vanessa Rome, Florida's low-profile first lady saw and talked to her daughters regularly until June 3, 2011 - just after Jessica, the older daughter, finished the eighth grade in Manhattan. A big fight erupted because the girls didn't want to accompany Crist and their mother to a stranger's home in the Hamptons. For nearly three years after that, Carole Crist did not see or even speak to her children. Shortly before this past Mother's Day, though, she started texting her daughters, now 17 and 15, and when Jessica challenged her to come visit, she flew to New York the next day. Vanessa Rome said the meeting at a hamburger joint on Madison Avenue ended in another argument because Carole couldn't explain why she had gone missing as a mother.

"All of a sudden - after three years of the girls calling and writing anguished letters that were ignored and asking for an explanation for why their mother stopped speaking to them, why she abandoned them - she reached out to them," said Vanessa Rome.

Privately, some in Crist's camp blame Todd Rome for turning his daughters against Carole.

"Todd has no problem with her being involved in their lives at all, none. We both think that's very important. We've had an open door from the very beginning, and she's always been welcome to visit any time," said Vanessa Rome, whose stepdaughters initially blamed Crist for their mother's behavior toward them.

Carole Crist remains an enigma. Second to Crist's father, she is said to be the greatest influence on the former governor, but his campaign "respectfully" declined the Times' request to talk to her.

Carole Crist's sister also is at a loss to explain Carole's apparent estrangement from her daughters' lives.

"How could I possibly explain that? I'm a mother. I have children," Michelle Powell said. "I don't understand it myself."

Crist could have been done with politics. He could have continued working for a lot of money for John Morgan's law firm, where his job, in Morgan's words, was to "go out in the state of Florida and be Charlie." He could have spent more time with his family. He could have spent more time with his wife. He could have motored around Tampa Bay in his 24-foot fiberglass boat called Freedom.

That's not the choice he made.

He has to run.

It's who he is.

So here, late one recent weekday morning, was Crist being Crist - walking up Central Avenue in St. Pete, dressed in loafers with tassels, crisp blue jeans with a belt decorated with pictures of fish and a pastel-patterned short-sleeved button-down, introducing himself to a police officer who of course already knew who he was, asking where he was from, asking for his vote, giving him a bumper sticker, explaining to him that one bumper sticker on a car is worth seven votes at the polls, waving at the garbage man waving at him, waving at the drivers of passing cars honking their horns and calling his name, then hearing the day drinkers at Mastry's clamoring for his attention from the other side of the darkened front window of the mainstay downtown dive bar.

He opened the door.

"Charlie!" they yelled.

He asked the bartender for her name.

"Pam," she said.

"Hi, Pam, I'm Charlie," he said.

His youngest sister, Catherine Crist Kennedy, says this "recharges his battery." His oldest sister, Margaret Crist Wood, says it's "just how he's made." One friend, Marty Rauch, says "you can't fake being Charlie Crist." Another, Keith Fitzgerald, a former state representative, says that "for your 150 seconds, you're the most important person in the world." And another, Cory Ciklin, a judge in West Palm Beach who has known Crist for almost 40 years, says "they love him, and he in turn loves that."

"You're one of us," one of the day drinkers announced.

"I am one of you," Crist said.

He ordered a Red Bull "Light," which is what he calls sugar-free Red Bull, which sometimes seems like all he ever drinks. He slid into a narrow wooden booth. The men at the bar peppered him with questions, prompting a staccato delivery of stances on issues.

"Why did you jump ship from the Republican Party?"

"Because they lost their minds!"

"Are you for or against medical marijuana?"

"For it! Hundred percent!"

"What do you think about Obamacare?"

"I like it!"

"But the less government, the better," they said.

"In certain instances!" he said. "I like the military, I like health care, I like national parks ..."

The crowd at Mastry's, almost entirely white and middle-aged or older, didn't seem to be aligned politically with Crist. It also didn't seem to matter.

"I think you're a good guy," one of the men said.

"I've known you long enough to know," another one said.

Crist stood up to go outside, "to get some fresh air, gentlemen," he said cheerfully, then settled into a metal chair at a table on the sidewalk.

Soon, some of the day drinkers followed, tottering out into the sun.

"I'm for you, Charlie!" one of them said. "You're a hell of a lot better than Scott."

"We can do better," Crist said. "We deserve better."

One of them wanted his picture taken with Crist while holding up a cocktail napkin on which he had black-inked GO CHARY. Crist helped him fix the spelling.

The bartender came out to the sidewalk. "Quit bothering him!" she said.

Crist assured her this wasn't bothering him. "No, no," he said. "Not at all."

"You've got my vote!" one of the men said.

"Then you've got my heart," Crist replied.

Another one of the men called his elderly mother in Largo, asking Crist to talk to her, handing him his phone. Crist quietly asked him for her name before raising the phone to his face. "Good morning, Doris!" he said. "I'm fine. How are you? You wish I was governor again? Well, I'm working on it - and I'd appreciate your vote." He asked if she had a computer, which she could use, he said, to give even just one dollar through Maybe, he suggested, that was something that could be handled by her son, who stood on the sidewalk, swaying. "Listen, Doris," Crist said, "you have a wonderful son."

One recent early afternoon Crist walked into a pub in Fort Lauderdale called the Royal Pig. He ordered a bowl of cream of mushroom soup and a Red Bull "Light." He was having soup, he said, only because he had a bit of a cold. When he lived in the Governor's Mansion, he would have the chef strain the potatoes out of the clam chowder, always shunning starch. It's hard, hardly eating, he said, because he loves food, he insisted, but "I'm so conditioned to it that I don't get hungry. I don't."

He was starting to talk about his father being his hero when his soup showed up.

"What's that in the middle of it?" he said to the server.

"It's ... the green part or the bread?"

"The bread."

"It's ... a piece of toast."

Crist held the bowl over the middle of the table.

"Do you want me to take it back?" the server said.

"Just the toast," Crist said.

"There's an old expression," he added. "Eat bread, look like bread."

The server seemed to not know quite what to do. Take the bowl? Remove the toast by hand? One of Crist's aides, seated to his left, lifted the toast out of the bowl, soup dripping from the half that had been dunked, and plopped it, sopping, onto a folded white cloth napkin.

Crist reiterated the sentiment that his father's his hero, and that his sisters are great, and that his mother is sweet. He was asked if he had ever gotten into a significant argument with his father. He said no. He was asked if he had ever disappointed his father. He said no.

He was asked about friends. About how some of his oldest friends are no longer his friends. Why?

"Probably because I'm in government," he said, talking as if it were an occupational hazard. "You know, it just takes so much time - it takes time away from my family, the same way. And you have to be able to - you know, this is a big state, and there's a lot of people in it, like 20 million. And, you know, when you're involved in this kind of endeavor, it's hard to spend a lot of time with as many people as you'd like to do that with. I mean, you have to keep expanding in order to succeed."

He was read what Crayton Pruitt said, about Crist being "superficially good friends with many people." He balked at the word superficial. "But no, in general, I think it's fair."

He was asked if he felt like he had sacrificed long-term relationships to advance his political career. Had that been a trade-off?

"There's sacrifice to anything," he said. "I remember my dad used to tell me the number of close friends you should have in your life are less than the number of fingers on one hand. ... I mean, I have a lot of friends, and then there are close friends, and then there are real close friends. But the busier you are, the harder it is."

He was asked who currently is on the close-friends hand. He mentioned his campaign manager, Omar Khan, whom he hired in late January.

He was asked about his failed first marriage - and if, like his ex-wife says, it was his decision to end it months after it started. "That's true," he said. "I wasn't happy."

He was asked about having children. He said he still wanted them, and that he and his wife have been discussing it, but that he still needed to convince her. "Not until after Nov. 4," Election Day, he added. "I'm kind of busy." But not having children, he said, is one of his two regrets in life. The other one, he said, is that he didn't go out for the baseball team his senior year at St. Petersburg High.

He was asked about the child he was rumored to already have had. "It's not possible," he said repeatedly.

He was asked about Room 1616 in Chile. "No damage where I was," he said. But the bill? For the repairs? "Not from my room," he said, and laughed.

He was asked about his wife and the three years she didn't see or talk to her daughters. His body language changed. He slumped in his chair and looked at the ceiling and expressed exasperation that we were broaching the issue, calling it "a private personal matter" and momentarily rendering the conversation "way off" the record so he could vent.

He was asked if he's gay. Again, unruffled. "No," he said.

He then was asked if he has ever had sex with a man. His aide objected immediately, asking stridently if we were "kidding." Not Crist. "It's okay," he said to him. "No," he said to us.

He was asked about how much he smokes. "Not much," he said. "Some." What's he smoke when he smokes? "Cigars," he said. Cigarettes, though? Marlboro Lights? Whatever somebody has? He looked pained. He said his father doesn't know about his smoking. "Not from me. And I love him very much."

All that happened in a little more than an hour. And he parted ways with us, with two reporters - after having been asked about friends who are no longer friends, about his closet smoking, about the potential of an illegitimate child, about whether or not he's ever had sex with a man - with good-natured handshakes, with a smile. It's almost always this way with Crist. What this says about him is whatever you want it to say. No matter what, though, you end up feeling pretty good. He leaves in his wake this genial mist. You practically have to remind yourself of the actual contents of the conversation.

Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary and researchers Carolyn Edds, Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at or (727) 893-8241. Contact Michael Kruse at or (727) 893-8751. Follow @adamsmithtimes. Follow @michaelkruse.

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About this special report

The Tampa Bay Times set out to produce a complete portrait of perhaps the most familiar but least understood figure in modern Florida political history. Adam C. Smith, who has covered Charlie Crist for nearly two decades, and Michael Kruse, who wrote the definitive profile of Crist's disgraced former close friend, ex-Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer, interviewed more than 100 people, including family members, friends, advisers and co-workers - both supporters and detractors of Crist. In many cases, people declined to be quoted for publication, fearing their careers would suffer if they publicly discussed what happens behind the scenes at the top levels of state government. We reviewed records from Miami to Tampa Bay to Tallahassee. Over months of reporting, we attended many Crist events, including fundraisers, office openings, news conferences, appearances at restaurants and an impromptu walk down St. Petersburg's Central Avenue. On multiple occasions, we posed questions to Crist and his advisers in person, by phone and in email. Last month, in Fort Lauderdale, we sat down with Crist and asked him directly about specific incidents and allegations.