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De Cesare says the deafening silence after her question suggested that the other people in the room were "shocked and appalled." After a beat, Crist answered, "I'm not, the records are open, and we shouldn't discriminate against anyone." The audience burst into applause.
De Cesare remains unapologetic. "I thought it was a fair question to ask Mr. Crist," she says. "The Republicans have made such hay out of sexual orientation and family values. If they didn't mention it, it would be another thing. But they've gone beyond mentioning it; they've made it a platform."
Crist moved quickly after De Cesare's question to head off other towel snaps at his sexuality. The following Monday, the candidate called in to Dave McKay's show at WQYK-FM (99.5), a country radio station in Tampa and friendly territory.
"Are you a homo?" asked McKay, an enthusiastic Crist booster.
"No, man. No. I love women," Crist replied. "I mean, they're wonderful."
"I've seen you with some great-looking women," McKay said. "I've heard some women even complain that you're a womanizer."
"I wouldn't say I'm a womanizer," Crist countered hurriedly. "That's probably going too far."
Calling McKay seemed to pay off: Florida's press corps considered the matter settled.
That spring, Tom Gallagher, Florida's chief financial officer, announced that he would make his third attempt at the Republican nomination for governor. After filing his paperwork, he stood on the steps of the Capitol and told reporters that one of his platform's planks was a strong stance against gay marriage.
"As governor, I will defend the values that keep our families strong," he said, standing with his wife and young son. "There's nothing better than having a wife and child who support you and work with you and that you can go home to and relax with and enjoy."
From the start, his wife and child were a constant theme in Gallagher's campaign, used without much subtlety to remind fellow Republicans that Crist has no wife or children of his own to parade.
It's common for a Republican candidate to appeal to the party's most conservative voters before a primary, and Gallagher, whose credentials suggested that he was actually from the moderate wing of the GOP, predictably went to the right as September 5 approached. But in a way that was too obvious to miss, the Gallagher campaign relentlessly hammered on themes of gay marriage, gay civil unions, and family, family, family not just to appeal to conservatives but to hint that Crist was light in the loafers.
And yet, the more Gallagher seemed desperate to show voters that his opponent was wifeless, childless, and soft on gay issues, the more Crist pulled away in the polls. Gallagher clearly hadn't got the memo: Republicans are willing to let a closeted Charlie Crist win.
As the campaign continued, a woman began appearing with Crist at public events and campaign stops. Kathryn "Katie" Pemble, an officer at the Bank of St. Petersburg, acknowledged to reporters that she and Crist were "dating" in January 2006. She quickly became a fixture of Crist's campaign, eventually making cameos in several crucial pre-primary newspaper biographies of Crist.
Despite being accompanied on the campaign trail by a brand-new girlfriend, Crist still couldn't shake the whispers. Internet scribblers labeled Pemble a "prop." And in April, a website called "SorryCharlie.com" appeared. It hosted cartoons depicting Crist coming out of a closet and calling him a "liberal superstar." Its creators remain anonymous.
The Tampa Tribune, one of only two newspapers to report on the website, called it a "sloppily produced, illiterate, dirty tricks Web site put together by cowards who lack the spine to attach their names to a not-too-thinly veiled campaign to suggest Crist is gay."
Soon, the site disappeared, and no trace of it or its videos can be found online today.
It was July when Crist faced the gay question head-on again, this time as a guest on Jim DeFede's radio talk show on WINZ-AM (940). When DeFede hit him with the question, Crist was prepared.
"The point is, I'm not. There's the answer. How do you like it?" Crist said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that, as they say on Seinfeld. But I just happen not to be."
Along with scoring cool points with the gay-friendly set for working in the Seinfeld reference, Crist also said that he was "fine" with civil unions for gay couples and that he hadn't "reached a conclusion" on whether gay adoptions should be allowed in Florida, both heretical departures from the Republican party line.
Naturally, Gallagher pounced. In early August, his team organized a conference call for Florida conservative Christian leaders, telling them that "it's become very clear that there's only one candidate who can be trusted to continue Gov. Bush's social conservative agenda."
Doubts about Crist from the hard right started coming faster and with more heat. And not all of it was coming from Gallagher's camp.
"The people who were in the know knew where the whispers were coming from," says Strum, chair of the Broward GOP. "They didn't come from any particular candidate."
John Stemberger, head of the Florida Family Policy Council, which spearheaded the movement for a state gay marriage ban, told listeners on the conference call that Crist was suspect when it came to gay issues.