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?

Grassman, who was 25 years old and unaware of Dr. Crist's influence, didn't like the interruption. He yelled, "If he wants Gatorade in the coolers, let him do it!" But Charles Crist did much more than that. The next day, the doctor dispatched a letter to Grassman's boss, calling him "defiant," and Grassman was fired soon after.

Soon afterward, Grassman, infuriated and confused, approached Charles at a local library. "Why can't you be a man and talk to me about it?" he said.

The doctor whirled around, forefinger pointed at Grassman, and said, "I am a better man than you think I am, baby!"

"Dr. Crist crushed our hopes and dreams," says Grassman's wife, Deborah. "This dramatically impacted our lives forever. It was injustice."

More than any other person, Dr. Charles Crist shaped the man who would become Florida's governor 35 years later. His own pugnacious run at St. Pete politics likely heightened his son's ambition and tempered the younger Crist's disposition. During Charlie's time in the governor's mansion on North Adams Street, he listened to his father before other advisers. Nearly every morning — then, as well as now — Charlie Crist called his dad for private conversations to which even senior aides weren't privy. Their closeness conjures a comparison to another successful politician, three separate people close to Charlie Crist say. "There's an analogy I like to make to Charlie's father," Crist's ex-wife, Mandy Morrow, says. "Joe Kennedy."

And just as the Kennedys were born of Irish angst and ambition, the Crists sprang from immigrant origins. Their story is rooted in Cyprus, a small Mediterranean nation split between Greeks and Turks. In 1912, while the nation was falling under British control over the fading Ottomans, Crist's grandfather Adam Christodoulou left for America. At age 14, he arrived in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Destitute, Adam shined shoes for $5 per month and in 1932 fathered Charles Joseph Christodoulou. Young Charles abandoned his native heritage, shortened his name to Crist, and never learned Greek. In his 20s, after attending Penn State University, he was accepted to Emory University's prestigious medical school and graduated in 1960. He married a demure Irish woman, Nancy Lee, and fathered three daughters and Charlie.

When Charlie was 4 years old, Charles Crist took a medical position in St. Petersburg and moved his family into a columned two-story home along the bay. Nancy Lee — by all accounts a good, decent woman — was intensely shy, and her husband dominated. He inculcated the children with the same restive spirit that, in part, drove him from the factories of Altoona. Two daughters became educators and the third a radiation oncologist.

"One time I got a D, and all my dad said was, 'Fix it,' " recalls Charlie's younger sister, Cathy Kennedy, who lives in St. Petersburg. "You're a Crist, and you do the best." She remembers coming home late at night during high school to find her father awake in the living room, surrounded by literature, reading an encyclopedia.

And then, of course, there was Charlie. Charles brought his son everywhere: to local high school football games and along the campaign trail while running for school board in the late 1960s. Crist Sr. recalls teaching his son about fiscal responsibility and fairness. "We were always social moderates," Charles says. "We were never racists or anything."

But stories printed in the St. Petersburg Times in the early '70s cast doubt on that claim. Crist Sr. served on the school board during desegregation and was perhaps its most controversial and vociferous opponent. In 1970 he appealed a Fifth Circuit Court ruling that had found Pinellas County in violation of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling — all the way to President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Supreme Court. The plea was ignored.

In an editorial that year, the St. Petersburg Times condemned Crist and two other board members for playing "racial table tennis." He "has gone out of [his] way to see that this city becomes a permanent bastion of apartheid," the editorial said, adding that he "deserved" an "expression of disgust."

While the drama saturated the city, Charlie entered St. Petersburg High as seemingly the perfect student. He was handsome, popular, school president, zealous about extracurricular activities — though unfortunately not much good at football. He had an arm but lacked agility and fumbled too much, recalls teammate Steve LeCroy. The football coach, Forrest Page, thought he was a "sissy" and vowed Charlie wouldn't start.

"We didn't get along," Crist recalls, but when pressed about what happened between Page and him, he simply responds, "I don't know."

His son's failure at sports made Charles Sr. extremely unhappy, says Bob Chick, who wrote for the now-defunct Evening Independent. In the spring of 1972, Chick remembers, Crist Sr. invited Page to lunch at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and attempted to bribe him with a high-paying school district administrative position. The condition: Page would have to start Charlie. The coach later described the meeting to Chick, who scribbled it down for a story in the Independent. The reporter even kept his notes, which he recently unearthed. "I knew Page for many years," Chick says. "And I never caught him saying one thing when it was really another. He wouldn't lie about this."

Over the next year, tension mounted between Crist Sr., who was also the team's physician, and the coaches regarding his son's playing time. "His son was getting closer to the point of becoming a senior and graduating," says David Grassman, the defensive backs coach, during a trial deposition. "And Dr. Crist seemed to be becoming more and more involved, interfering with coaches [regarding the] way his son was being handled."

On one occasion, Crist Sr. called Grassman while he was teaching and expressed frustration. Charlie wasn't getting the time he needed to throw, his father said. The coaches were coddling the team's starter, Jerry Lewis. His son had to play, he informed the coaches over and over again.

After Grassman was fired, the team limped to a 3-7 record while playing both Charlie and Jerry. Soon, Page resigned. But in truth, the coach told buddies at a local jock hangout called the Edgewater, the Crists had forced him out. Charles Graham, a close friend of the coach, says Page blamed the Crists. "Charlie is a sissy," Graham recalls the coach, who died in 1983, saying that night. "And I wasn't going to play him. He wasn't good enough for playing time."

Crist went on to compete at Wake Forest University but foundered there as well and never made varsity, his family says. But in later years, Crist would often talk of his quarterback days, sometimes glossing over that fact. He boasted to New Times that Virginia Tech and Rice University recruited him in high school. His official state Senate bio in the mid-'90s was terse: "Wake Forest University, 1974-76: quarterback, football team" — without mentioning the practice squad. And Crist Sr. says his son "could pass a mile" and "throw the ball 65 yards." Even during his 2012 Democratic National Convention speech, Crist said, "I used to play quarterback right down the road here at Wake Forest."

But Crist's ex-wife, Mandy Morrow, who met him around that time, says, "He was never good at football, not good in high school, and not so good in college." During college, Morrow and Crist were an inseparable and striking pair — she blond and fair, he tall and dark — attending dances and concerts.

But after the two wed in 1979, following Crist's transfer to Florida State University and graduation, their marriage quickly dissolved. Everything was an argument, Crist says. That fall, he drove home from Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama, filled with anxiety. He kept thinking, No one in my family has ever divorced. He was terrified what his father would think. When he arrived, his sister Cathy didn't recognize him. "He didn't have that smile or confidence," she says. "It really upset me."

That night, after consulting his father, Crist decided to divorce Morrow, Cathy says. He told his wife the next day; both recall they spoke once more and never again. Morrow says she didn't have any warning and soon after moved to Dallas. "It came out of nowhere," she recalls. "And then we just lived our lives."

Crist graduated from Cumberland in 1981 and later took a job as the general counsel for Minor League Baseball in St. Pete. A decade later, he was elected to the state Senate and began a remarkably seamless ascent through state politics.

Until he failed at that too.

Visit with Charlie Crist in his St. Petersburg neighborhood along the bay and you don't sense internal conflict or regret. There's only the frenetic energy, good grooming, and restraint that got him so high so fast. While others schlep about in jeans, he's wearing a suit and planning big things. But despite his likability, few people really know Charlie Crist. Affability is his shield.

This refrain emerged often among the dozens of people interviewed for this story: Even at extreme moments, like an electoral defeat, he's almost incapable of melancholy or anger. "He's a friend, and open, but he doesn't share with anybody," says a Tallahassee lobbyist close to Crist. "You think you know him, but beneath the surface... I've always been surprised. If you find out, let me know."

It's not a manifestation of fame. He's always been this way — his father says it goes to his core. When he disagrees with you, rather than risk confrontation, he becomes either quiet or more jovial.

In the 1990s during his first state races, it became clear Crist didn't handle conflict like his father. "After Charlie defeated me, all he would say to me was 'Good evening, Senator,' or 'Good afternoon, Senator,' " recalls an early opponent who asked for anonymity. "Real sappy-sweet... It's bullshit."

And bullshit, Crist found, worked well in the state Senate. Once, in the mid-'90s, he hoisted chains above his head in the chamber to demonstrate his commitment to tying prisoners together as they trolled highway ravines for trash. The St. Petersburg Times called chain gangs the "worst idea of 1995," and even the state Department of Corrections held that chains impeded prisoner work, but Crist netted loads of positive publicity.

And in 1997, after Florida Power & Light abruptly raised rates, then-Senator Crist garnered major props for suing the company. "These issues gave him great credibility with people who never knew who he was," says Ron Sachs, former Gov. Lawton Chiles' communications director. "Few politicians in Florida's modern history have been so successful in reading the public mood."

However, he misread the mood that year when he abandoned the state Senate for a run at U.S. Congress. The immensely popular Bob Graham crushed him by 26 points. Two years later, Crist rebounded and was elected education commissioner. But Gov. Jeb Bush ignored Crist and appointed his own secretary of education, leaving Crist without power or influence. The decision didn't appear to bother Crist, who posted more than 100 pictures of himself on his education website and raised cash for a run at attorney general — though he'd failed the state bar twice.

In 2002, he became Florida's attorney general and was soon sucked into the drama of Terri Schiavo, who had been left in a vegetative state after a heart attack. While conservatives bellowed for her right to life, Crist declined to intervene, leaving it to the courts to decide whether her feeding tube should be removed. Crist's inaction was one of the greatest controversies of his tenure.

At the time, he was overly concerned with the next office, remembers Jackie Dowd, a tall, gray-haired lawyer who worked under Crist. "I never saw an attorney," she says. "I saw a guy running for governor." (Crist announced his run May 8, 2005.)

Dowd recalls the exact moment she came to that realization. It was a Monday morning in early 2003 after she'd trudged into a teleconference with Crist. She updated him on a lengthy investigation involving Lou Pearlman, the mastermind behind the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. Pearlman, she said, had scammed aspiring models by charging them thousands of dollars to upload their pictures to an unknown website. Dowd had more leads, she told Crist, but he expressed no interest. "I don't know why I knew it, but I just did," she says. "The case was dead."

Later, dozens of Pearlman's victims involved in a separate Ponzi scheme sued Crist and the state for negligence in investigating the con man, whose political and business ties spanned Florida. The lawsuit alleged Pearlman had pumped more than $11,000 into Crist's gubernatorial campaign, and the then-attorney general had flown in Pearlman's private jets and sat in his sporting skyboxes. The U.S. District Court in Tampa dismissed the complaint, citing the state's sovereign immunity.

Not even those allegations could slow Crist's ascent. Then came the rumors he was a closeted homosexual, a potentially serious issue for a Republican in Florida. It threatened to destroy him in the weeks before the 2006 gubernatorial election.

Jason Wetherington, a 21-year-old Republican staffer, had told several friends at separate social functions that August that he'd had sex with Crist. Wetherington had also told friends that another man, Bruce Carlton Jordan, had slept with Crist.

These stories — never corroborated but widely discussed on blogs, as well as in the St. Petersburg Times, in the New York Times, and on NBC — deeply wounded Crist's family. "I always thought it was his womanizing that would get him in trouble," Crist Sr. muses, saying he was impressed how well his son stamped out the ballooning intrigue. Charlie called the stories "ridiculous" and "completely false" and just kept on smiling. It worked. In 2006, voters deposited him in the governor's mansion.

Immediately, his approval ratings soared. Unlike his successor, Rick Scott, Crist caused little controversy. He backed teachers and cops and was the first Republican governor to accept an invitation to the state's NAACP conference.

In 2008, he married divorcée Carole Rome. He was pro-choice, then pro-life, and then pro-choice again. "I'm deeply committed to the Everglades ecosystem," he said. "I am deeply committed to persons with disabilities," he said a few months later. "I am deeply concerned... about our citizens and businesses."

He anointed himself the "happy warrior" and the "people's governor." But even then, there were traces of his political demise.

Extreme conservatives hated Crist for his moderation. First, he appointed centrists Jorge Labarga and James Perry to the state Supreme Court. Next, he accepted $13.3 billion in federal stimulus. And then there was The Hug. More a quickie man-bump than a full embrace, Crist clasped Barack Obama in February 2009 after he accepted the federal bailout, and Republicans, quite simply, lost their minds.

The governor eventually recognized the true might of the Tea Party, but it was much too late. When he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in May 2009, he never saw Marco Rubio coming.

At dusk, a 20-seat commercial plane bound for Tampa rumbles to life on a Tallahassee tarmac. Mike Fasano, a Republican state senator from Tampa, peers out the window, wondering what's taking so long. The flight is an hour late for takeoff. Ordinarily they'd already be circling Tampa.

But this isn't an ordinary flight.

It is 2010, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the last passenger, ducks aboard. He takes a seat near Fasano, and over the engine's rattle, the two angular, white-haired men begin to talk. Crist says he's considering vetoing a bill that would eliminate teacher tenure. Fasano supports the measure and cautions Crist. "If you veto this bill," he warns, "you'll have to switch parties."

Days later, Crist issued the veto. But the brief discussion was emblematic of the growing schism between the governor and Republicans. "Charlie's a nice guy," Fasano says. "His decisions were based on what he truly believed in."

At first, following his marriage to Carole Rome and his bipartisan support as governor, Crist's campaign had the look of a juggernaut. His presumptive predecessor, whom Crist had tapped to keep the Senate seat warm, was longtime aide George LeMieux. And he led former state House speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary by 30 points.

Then something unusual happened. Crist lost his touch. This was recessionary America, and he failed to channel its passions and vitriol. He shrank before conservatives. "My advisers said, 'They're angry,' " Crist recalls. " 'You need to be angry too.' But I'm not an angry guy."

By August 2009, long before that meeting on the plane in Tallahassee, Fasano and other Republican kingmakers were convinced Crist would lose. It wasn't the poll numbers; there, Crist remained strong. Rather, Republicans had greeted the governor with ambivalence at the state GOP's annual dinner in Orlando. "When Charlie used to be in a roomful of Republicans, he was the rock star," Fasano says. "But that night, the applause he got was, well, polite, not rock star. I knew then there was a problem."

And then images of The Hug splashed across TV sets statewide. Rubio's onslaught was relentless. "You just don't get it," Rubio told Crist in a heated March debate. "This campaign is... about trust. And who do you trust to go to Washington and stand up to Barack Obama?"

The primary battle soon assumed national significance. Rubio, a conservative Cuban-American from Miami, came to represent the Tea Party's rise. Crist led the feckless establishment. Out-of-state contributions gushed into Rubio's coffers, nullifying the governor's fundraising advantage. Rubio netted $250,000 from Karl Rove's super PAC alone.

Crist needed a game change. He began thinking of leaving the Republican Party, advisers said, while assuring everyone in his party and the media that he wouldn't.

In late April that year, the state capitol halls pulsed with gossip. Alex Villalobos, a lobbyist, friend of Crist's, and former legislator who had his own issues with the Republican Party, had just walked across the Senate floor. "Turncoat," one voice sounded. "Traitor," said another.

Villalobos grabbed a legislator. "What happened?" he asked.

"Haven't you heard?" came the answer. "Charlie's now an independent."

Villalobos climbed the steps to Crist's office. The rumors, the governor said, were true. He'd abandoned the party. But in that moment, Crist was strangely energized. His campaign for Senate was collapsing, but he didn't show it. The two men embraced, and Villalobos walked out knowing Crist was likely finished.

For all of his appeal and fame, on November 2 that year, Crist received only 30 percent of the vote. Rubio took half of the voters. And Democrat Kendrick Meek limped in with 20 percent. "Charlie learned then you can't win a statewide election as an independent," his father says.

But even in that failed bid lay seeds of something remarkable. Crist had discovered a new coalition of voters. Roughly 90 percent of conservatives rejected him, but he'd found support among half of the state's liberals. And he attracted more moderates than anyone else in the race. He'd accomplished this feat without party money or support.

The loss, though crushing, had positioned him for a comeback. But first he'd have to survive several years out of public office — years that would mark some of the strangest of his life.

"You're a piece of garbage!" a broad, wavy-haired New Yorker recalls bellowing at Crist and his wife. They were in Manhattan, weeks after the governor had left Tallahassee in 2011. Todd Rome, Carole Crist's ex-husband and a millionaire travel baron, remembers departing an Upper East Side bakery, clutching a box of cupcakes for his daughter's birthday, when he spotted them.

Rome, CEO of Blue Star Jets in New York, lost it. Carole, he explains, had moved to Florida, married Crist, and abandoned their teenage daughters, Jessica and Skylar. She hadn't returned any of their letters, texts, phone calls — nothing, he says. She simply dissolved into the Florida ether with Crist.

For a moment, in front of that cupcake shop on 57th Street, they all looked at each other, unsure. Then, Rome says, the couple immediately fled in separate directions. So Rome threw down his cupcakes and bolted after the former governor, yelling, "You have no balls! You're a lowlife! Why won't you stop and confront me?"

Crist, Rome says, evaded the confrontation by disappearing into a subway tunnel. "He's a piece of shit," says Rome, who has since remarried. "My kids were in the way of their lifestyle, and Charlie has never had a child, so he doesn't want them. He married a woman with two children and then walked away. A people person? He's a piece of shit."

(Carole Crist declined to be interviewed for this story, and no impartial source has criticized her parenting. Charlie Crist said, "I'm not going to comment about my wife's ex-husband.")

But outside of this unscripted encounter, Crist's life was coalescing around a grand return to the spotlight. It began immediately after his concession to Rubio. Crist emerged from the tony Vinoy Renaissance Resort in St. Petersburg seemingly unfazed. Reporters hounded him. Everyone wanted to know what he would do, but Crist was coy as usual. Mike Fasano said he thought Crist was finished. Several other attendants at that party said he'd form a political action committee to help moderate candidates. The Tampa Bay Times suggested he'd run for U.S. Congress. All, in fact, were wrong.

Three days after he left office, Crist enlisted with the mega-personal-injury law firm, Morgan & Morgan. Managing partner John Morgan was optimistic. "He is going to try cases," Morgan said in 2011. "I think he'd do pretty good in front of a jury in Florida."

These days, however, Morgan doesn't emphasize the ex-governor's courtroom acumen. "Charlie Crist is not a minder or a grinder," says Morgan, a prolific Democratic Party fundraiser. "He's a finder. He makes friends. If you go to a ballgame with him, he'll distribute 200 business cards. What he likes, he does. He meets clients."

Crist also likes acting. Soon after taking the job, he released commercials, some of which bear no relevance to personal-injury litigation. In one, he exalts the sacrifice of our "unsung heroes": police and correctional officers. In another, he lionizes one more key constituency: "Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and, for some reason, never fully appreciated," says Crist, looking earnest. "To our teachers, you have our deepest gratitude. Thank a teacher."

Next came the billboards, dozens of them along Florida's Turnpike and elsewhere, showing a beaming Crist reminding the public, among other things, not to text and drive.

The job has allowed Crist to retain his celebrity while stitching together a nascent network of fundraisers. "If Charlie runs for governor," Morgan says, "I'll be extremely active in fundraising for him."

His fame, though, sometimes lures unwanted attention. In December 2011 at a New York Supreme Court hearing, Todd Rome chanted at him: "Big dick. You're a big dick. Big dick."

Rome had sued his ex, Carole, for abandoning their children. He claimed she'd been contractually bound to provide child support and emotional care for their children, and she'd reneged. New York Supreme Court Judge Matthew Cooper, however, disagreed. "I can't make her visit her children," he said, according to the New York Post.

Afterward, Mark Heller, Rome's celebrity lawyer, laid it on thick for reporters. "Mrs. Crist's purported heartless disconnect from both her devastated teenage daughters... shocked the good conscience of all courtroom observers and drew genuine tears of pain," he told the Post.

But hiccups have never derailed Crist. And they didn't this time. His moment arrived this past August when the Democrats invited him to deliver an address at their national convention. Then he stumped all over the nation for Barack Obama.

The president took notice. Less than 48 hours after he was re-elected, amid the parties, Benghazi controversy, and fiscal cliff apoplexy, Obama found time to call Crist on his cell in St. Petersburg. While Crist adopts a nonchalant attitude when telling this story, the conversation was anything but ordinary. He might be the only Florida politician to have received such attention.

"He said, 'Thank you for all of your work.' He expressed frustration over the problems we had with early voting and asked whether there was anything I could do about it."

Crist said there was, and it was clear what he meant.

At exactly 6 o'clock on a Wednesday morning this past November, Crist, clutching a small white towel, steps into an elevator at his St. Pete apartment building. He's clad in light-blue pleated shorts, a yellow T-shirt, and teal flip-flops. He is shaved and showered, and the elevator is heavy with the smell of Brut. Crist has a gym date.

The elevator ascends to the top floor, and the ex-governor gets down to business. But even at the workout's zenith, after he has bench-pressed 170 pounds and worked his triceps on the pulley machine, he doesn't sweat. His face's bronzed sheen gives way to an angry red, but not one bead of perspiration appears.

After putting in 15 minutes of weight work, Crist lowers himself into the rooftop heated swimming pool. Then he crawls back and forth, back and forth, 15 seconds off, 45 seconds on. Finally, emerging from the deep, he heads downstairs, buys a Tampa Bay Times, and, still in teal flip-flops, flutters to a Starbucks for a caramel pecan tart latte. "An indulgence," he sighs.

The Tampa Bay Times carries a story that day about a new bill entering the state legislature to expand Florida's early voting. This intrigues Crist. He calls the tactics that Rick Scott pursued to dissuade turnout "uncon­scionable." His eyes are electric when he says this.

Just as he once attracted attention to prisoner chain gangs and controversy over Florida electricity, voter suppression has become his new issue. This aligns the "people's governor" again with the people — and against Scott. The public furor over this past fall's vote, along with the fact that Crist extended early voting in 2008, might be enough to launch him back to Tallahassee.

In mid-December he officially registered as a Democrat, and five days later he materialized at a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington. Wearing a pregnant expression and a navy pinstriped suit with a gold-and-blue tie, he lampooned the current governor. "The outcome of [Scott's] decisions was quite obvious," Crist said. "Florida, which four years earlier was a model for efficiency, became once again a late-night TV joke."

Though such signs point to another run at governor, what remains unclear, however, is whether Crist will win. How long will the early-voting calamity resonate? What will the money-laundering case against Jim Greer, the Crist-appointed and allegedly corrupt Republican chairman, shake loose about Crist?

Besides, if Crist's loss to Marco Rubio proves anything, it's the capricious nature of primaries. They're not won with fame but by an active party nucleus. "There's a difference of opinion between longtime party activists and the casual voters," says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist. "And someone who is a longtime activist in the Democratic Party will be resentful of him stepping in."

Contemporary polls, however, offer a different narrative. After Crist switched to the Democrats and changed positions on Obama­Care, taxation, and gay marriage, his lead over prospective opponent Alex Sink, the former state CFO, ballooned from 17 points to 25. And if he glides through the primaries, besting possible opponents such as Orlando's mayor, Buddy Dyer, he'll likely pummel the most unpopular governor in modern Florida history.

On a recent Wednesday, following another castigation of Rick Scott at a news conference in downtown Tampa, Crist eases into his black SUV. The leather interior, except for the sanitized aroma of Brut, is sterile. There isn't a crumb on the dashboard, not a document in the back seat. The only vestige of personality is in a side compartment — the album Time and Tide, by Polish jazz singer Basia.

Crist is talking about his political evolution. "You know, people say all the time that you plan this or you plan that to get somewhere," he says, steering the vehicle onto I-275. "But for me, none of it was planned. It just happened. And some days, I have to pinch myself. It's like a dream."

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Terrence McCoy