Is Charlie Crist Florida's Next Governor?

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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.

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Terrence McCoy