Is Charlie Crist Florida's Next Governor?

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"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