Is Charlie Crist Florida's Next Governor?

Days before this past November's election at a cramped deli off Biscayne Boulevard in Aventura, a new yellow Camaro glided into the parking lot and hummed to a rest. An Obama 2012 sticker was pasted onto its bumper. The driver was five hours late.

But inside Mo's Bagels, none of the patrons seemed to care. They crowded around the window, watching.

The man stepped out of the convertible wearing a neon-orange tie. He had Oompa Loompa skin, Anderson Cooper hair, and a Keanu Reeves chin. He smoothed his eyebrows, lacquered his lips in classic Chap Stick, tucked and retucked his blue button-down to accentuate his size 34 waist, and popped in an Altoid. He smiled — a big, goofy one — and in the afternoon sun, his silver coif glowed like ice. It was difficult to look at anything else.

"Hi, how are you?" the hair asked a tall man at the eatery's entrance. "I'm Charlie Crist. But call me Charlie." He didn't wait for a response. He sashayed inside and abruptly turned. "Hey," he said, touching the tall man on the shoulder. The lines around his brown eyes wrinkled. "Let's have some fun," he winked.

Dozens of eyes latched onto the hair. "Hi! My name's Charlie!" he said, thrusting a tanned hand at the diner's swarthy owner, Paul Kruss.

"I already know," responded Kruss, but before he could say more, Crist was on to the next encounter: "Hi! My name's Charlie!"

"You got to wonder," Kruss turned away, muttering, "Who is this guy?"

Next, Crist spotted a gray-haired woman slurping matzo ball soup. He nestled in beside her, put his arm around her slight shoulders, and leaned in close — very close. He smelled of breath mints and Brut aftershave. He asked if she'd voted yet, and the woman became briefly confused. There was an awkward moment. "Are you running for something?" she asked. Crist said he wasn't and laughed, but no one else did.

Charlie Crist was lying. At the time, he'd been running for governor for weeks, though that fact became fully clear only this past December, when he completed his switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party and took to Capitol Hill in Washington to excoriate Gov. Rick Scott for voter suppression.

Today, with a very powerful friend in resurgent President Barack Obama and recent polls showing he'd trounce every other gubernatorial contender — including Scott — Crist couldn't be more back. What's more, his proclivity for moderation, once a profound weakness that ruined his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, has now made him a rare and dangerous politician — so much so that Crist might eventually achieve more than a Tallahassee mansion. Perhaps, academics and pollsters contend, he's heading for a prestigious diplomatic post. Or even, with the nation ravenous for centrality, a spot on a ticket to the White House.

But all of that hinges on how well Crist reintroduces himself to the state's voters. Rumors that he was gay and hiding it wounded him politically years ago, and his recent departure from the Republican Party made him appear both opportunistic and wishy-washy. Now a two-month New Times investigation has uncovered misrepresentations and unseemly facts from the once-and-future candidate's childhood and young adulthood.

Crist wasn't a star football player, as he and his father have implied, New Times has found. And perhaps even more surprising, his father and closest confidant, Dr. Charles Crist, was a segregationist who — despite a kind heart — resigned abruptly from the Pinellas County School Board in 1977 following a controversial tenure. Charlie Crist was also a mediocre student and, according to his ex-wife, an inept husband who dissolved the marriage after only eight months and disappeared.

For his part, Crist defends his father and derides the significance of the questionable claims. Indeed, as he aims to return to prominence, greater obstacles lie ahead. To win, he must convince voters he is not only truthful but also better-suited for the job than Rick Scott. Crist is a gifted politician, with both Clintonian affability and Reagan-like intuition, but even he might not be able to pull off this next trick.

Can he make voters forget the past?

On a Friday night in late 1973, Charlie Crist, age 17 and floppy-haired, stretched a white number 12 jersey over his six-foot, 170-pound frame and loped onto a brightly lit sandlot that players called the "dust bowl." His St. Pete High Green Devils were about to take on their local rival, Dunedin High.

While the teams warmed up, Crist's dad, Charles, arrived. He was late and angry. Hook-nosed and dark-haired, he bulldozed onto the field and up to a young assistant coach named David Grassman. A school board member of immense local power and respect, Charles had a hand on his hip and a sharp question, Grassman recalls. Why, he asked, wasn't Gatorade in the coolers as he'd ordered?

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Terrence McCoy