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  1. Florida Politics

Charlie Crist wraps up publicity-generating book tour in St. Petersburg

Charlie Crist arrives Saturday with Vito Sheeley, left, and Watson Haynes of the Pinellas County Urban League at Haslam’s Book Store in St. Petersburg, where Crist signed copies of his book.
Published Feb. 23, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — How do you run for governor against someone planning to spend $100 million to defeat you?

If you're Charlie Crist, you start by writing a book and then milking it for every ounce of free publicity you can muster.

"I'm really grateful to God to have the opportunity to run for governor and honored and pleased to be a Democrat," Crist gushed to a scrum of reporters Saturday while nearly 100 people at Haslam's Book Store waited for the Republican-turned-Democratic former governor to autograph his new memoir.

"It's great to be in the people's party, and I've never felt more at home politically than I do right now."

Crist's campaign event — er, book signing — capped a nearly two-week book tour that brought him to nine Florida cities. He is clearly hawking his candidacy for governor at least as much as his new book, The Party's Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.

Normally campaigns have to hire advance staffers and press staffers, pay for plane tickets, rent space, equipment and more to stage an event that draws TV, radio and newspaper reporters. Or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads to get on voters' TV screens.

The beauty of a book tour is that it allows a candidate like Crist to generate loads of media attention while spending little of the campaign money he will need to take on Republican Gov. Rick Scott this year.

Crist says he doesn't know how many books have sold, but the campaign's media tracking firm has calculated the value of the book tour to date.

Crist's national TV interviews with the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Stephen Colbert put Crist before a potential national audience of 8.7 million people, which equals $489,171.96 worth of publicity. Local TV viewership across Florida totaled 3.3 million people, free publicity worth an additional $204,179.57.

"We've had good turnouts wherever we've been, so I'm overjoyed," Crist said Saturday, chuckling when asked if he considered his recent travels a book tour or campaign event.

"Some people think it's both, but for me it's a book tour. But I happen to be running for governor, too — so there is that."

Most of the expenses for the book tour will be paid by Crist himself, rather than his campaign, though not all. After a recent book signing in Tallahassee, for instance, Crist hopped aboard the private plane of a Tampa coal and energy company owned by Martin Hiller to head down to Islamorada to raise campaign money. He will have to report that on his campaign report.

The Florida GOP has been tracking Crist and organizing anti-Crist protests outside every book signing in Florida.

"We have ruined every TV package they thought they were going to have to themselves," crowed Susan Hepworth, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican Party, who was on hand yet again Saturday for Crist's hometown book signing. "Can't tell you how many TV stations we've called to let them know we'd have a response and they didn't know anything about Charlie being in town."

Maybe so, but the Crist camp has been thrilled with the Republican efforts to step on Crist's tour. The protesters have generated more local media coverage, attracted more people in some cases, and at times bolstered Crist's contention that his former party has been taken over by extremists.

Outside a Fort Lauderdale Barnes & Noble on Friday, protesters shouted that Crist is a "commie whore" and "looks like he has AIDS,'' according to local media reports.

The St. Petersburg crowd was nowhere near as nasty, though the Florida GOP made sure to have at least one prominent former Crist political supporter on hand to bash the author. State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, called Crist a "heat-seeking missile" when it comes to publicity, and bought himself a copy of The Party's Over, saying he appreciated fiction.

"Being a moderate is not about taking both sides or changing your mind about every other issue, being a moderate is about having a consistent set of core beliefs," Latvala said. "You don't go from being the most conservative Republican in the state Senate to endorsing the most liberal president in our lifetime."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com.

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