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Finding Crist: the auspicious beginnings of Charlie Crist’s controversial candidacy

Former Florida governor launches campaign to be re-elected, this time as a Democrat

Photo: Photos by Billy Manes, License: N/A

Photos by Billy Manes

Photo: , License: N/A

“I just had a really good idea,” he says. “Charlie is supposed to walk from his condo down to the stage around 9:30. Maybe you could go scope it out and see if you can’t throw a few questions at him along the way.”

After walking a mile in the wrong direction, I find my way to a bench outside the address provided. Two of John Morgan’s kids show up around 9 a.m., so it’s obviously the right place. After about 45 minutes of pathetic reconnaissance, I ditch my surveillance post, thinking that I just saw the shadow of Crist get into an SUV. I hoof my way over to Albert Whitted Park for the rally, passing just one protester with a “Charlie = Opportunist” poster and some poorly conceived Charlie “fans” sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida spread about (“Charlie Crist Is a Fan of Whatever You Want Him to Be,” they read.)

The crowd in favor of Crist isn’t as big as I expected, but this is a Monday morning. I squeeze my way up front with Crist’s family, some elected officials and Poe. While a soundtrack borrowed directly from the Obama iPod (Springsteen, U2, some Motown) plays, a woman behind me screams into her cell phone. “I love me some Charlie Crist! She’s so funny. She says, ‘Girl, I knew I’d turn you into a Democrat.’” Overhead, a banner plane – also funded by the RPOF – circles promoting a misleading website, CharlieForFlorida.com.

“That’s not yours?” I ask Poe.

“Not unless I post-dated the check,” he says. Today is the first day that the campaign is actually allowed to raise – and spend – money.

Following introductions from Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, former minority leader Dan Gelber and soon-to-be St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman, Crist bounds onto the stage to John Fogerty’s “Centerfield.”

“My friends, I don’t have to tell you that what we have here in Florida isn’t working,” Crist says, adding, “So today I announce that I am running for governor” a few minutes later.

Crist starts with his record, naturally: strong on education, smart on taxes, kind to seniors, good on voting rights, tough on crime, green on the environment. Then it’s on to Rick Scott’s economy: “cronyism.”

“I’m sorry, Gov. Scott, but flying around the state in your private jet to hold press conferences is not how we create an economy that grows the middle class,” he jabs.

A five-point political platform is then rolled out to varying degrees of cheers – education, tax cuts for the middle class, infrastructural investments, focus on renewable energy, tourism and trade – before soft-focusing on a Florida that he’d like to think he represents to most voters: right down the middle.

“People come here because we are a state where traditionally any middle-class family can live the American Dream, and do it living in paradise,” he smiles. “And we can be that state again.”

Nan Rich is not mentioned.

As Charlie dismounts into the small horde of well-wishers and camera crews, Poe tells me to stick by his side. “You’ll get your face-to-face. He’s going to work the crowd for a while.”

And so I do, following Crist’s face as it rises and falls through the hugs and camera snaps of adoration, never losing my position, repeating my questions to be shot out at a rapid pace when he comes to me. But that doesn’t happen.

Crist locks eyes with me, pulls out his index-finger gunpoint, and says, “Thank you for coming out, Billy.”

A baby is rolled up in a carriage. Crist kisses the boy on the forehead for the cameras (“He’s so serious!” he vamps), and drives away in as much of a blur as he arrived.

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