Is Charlie Crist Florida's Next Governor?

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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.

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Terrence McCoy