- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008

MIAMI

Like so many residents of the Sunshine State, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is not originally from here.The Pennsylvania native-turned-chief executive of Florida says it’s his new home’s siren song of beautiful beaches and abundant investment opportunity that makes the state so alluring to transplants “not only from the United States, but from all over the world.”

“We’re the melting pot of the American melting pot,” said Mr. Crist in his recent interview with The Washington Times.

Aesthetics and beachfront condos aside, Florida is a political prize both presidential candidates covet, perhaps more than any other.

The setting for the close of the controversial 2000 presidential election, during which Mr. Crist’s predecessor and presidential sibling Jeb Bush held the state’s highest office, Florida once again figures prominently in the November election.



Both Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have taken pains to court Florida’s Latin vote, knowing that support can make the difference between winning and losing the White House.

And if widespread rumor and speculation ring true, Mr. Crist is on Mr. McCain’s shortlist of potential running mates.

Though the Republican governor recently visited Mr. McCain at his Arizona home, he has repeatedly denied being asked to join the Republican ticket.

When asked whether his fiancee would consider moving to Washington “were he to get a promotion,” the 52-year-old Crist, whose public demeanor and press savvy is unparalleled among Florida politicos, noticeably squirmed and said he hadn’t discussed it with his betrothed, Carole Rome, a 38-year-old New York native and heiress to a family fortune made selling Halloween costumes.

Using his deftness for deflection on the million-dollar question everyone is asking him these days, the Florida governor instead likes to talk about why Mr. McCain is the best choice for president for both Floridians and all Americans.

Mr. Crist in particular stressed his support for Mr. McCain’s proposal for immigration reform, a two-step process in which the Arizona lawmaker promised if elected to secure U.S. borders and “implement temporary worker programs that will reflect the labor needs of the United States in both the high-tech and low-skilled sectors,” according to his campaign Web site.

“His immigration policy is very thoughtful,” Mr. Crist said. “It’s a compassionate policy that recognizes that people come to the United States from all over the world for opportunity.”

Selling his immigration policy to an ethnically diverse Florida would certainly be easier for Mr. McCain were Mr. Crist standing at his side, even though the governor’s approval rating recently dipped below 50 percent for the first time in 18 months, largely because of the floundering Florida real estate market and high property taxes.

Despite the recent setback for the governor, who is well-known for wooing the public with regular public appearances and a flawless political rap, state Republican leaders expressed confidence in Mr. Crist.

“The governor has always been very successful at knowing the pulse of the people and the voters,” said Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “I think that allows him to look at things not just from a political perspective, but from that of the general population.”

Mr. Greer said the governor’s understanding of the role of government is not unlike that of President Reagan. “It’s about less taxes and less government,” he said, noting Mr. Crist’s effort to reduce Florida’s property tax.

The Florida governor’s fight against government regulation recently made national headlines when he reversed his long-held opposition to off-shore oil drilling.

When asked what prompted a change of heart after years of denouncing the idea of jeopardizing Florida’s shores with a potential oil spill, the governor cited gas prices that hover around the $4 a gallon mark, raising calls for increased domestic production.

“The facts have changed,” Mr. Crist said simply.

Mr. Crist’s change of heart on that issue jump-started speculation that he was jockeying for Mr. McCain’s affections; the Republican presidential candidate also is in favor of tapping reserves off the Florida coast.

However, Mr. Crist denies any political motivation, saying his long-time associate, Mr. McCain, like himself remains a friend of the environment.

“He was the first person to speak to me about climate change,” the governor said, harking back to his days as Florida’s attorney general under Gov. Jeb Bush and even before that when he served as a state secretary and legislator.

His professed closeness to Mr. McCain has drawn criticism from members of the Florida Democratic Party, who complain Mr. Crist spends too much time glad-handing his constituents and not enough time focusing on curing Florida’s growing ills.

With joblessness on the rise and the state experiencing its first recession in 16 years, state Democrats say the governor spends too much time at McCain rallies and on overseas trips to drum up investment for Florida when he’s needed in Tallahassee to right a ship gone wrong in recent months.

“Governor Crist said, ‘You can’t govern from an empty chair,’” said Eric Jotkoff, the Florida Democratic Party’s communications director, in a reference to the governor´s now-famous remarks to a rival in the 2006 gubernatorial race. “And that’s exactly what he is doing.”

Florida Democrats have taken to calling Mr. Crist “Empty Chair Charlie” and even run a Web site by the same name (www.emptychaircharlie.com) chronicling his absence from office and other public exploits.

“Florida at this time needs real leadership and the fact that he is even considering taking three or four months off to run around the country campaigning is ridiculous,” Mr. Jotkoff said.

And with Mr. Crist one of a handful of candidates to accompany Mr. McCain in his run for the White House, some Florida Democrats express doubt that the governor could handle the responsibility of being the next in line for the presidency to Mr. McCain, who this month will be 72.

“I can’t imagine him trying to run the nation, let alone the free world,” said one Democratic official.

Neither can Mr. Crist, if you believe his oft-repeated profession of not wanting to leave his adoptive and beloved Florida behind for the grandeur of Washington, D.C.

“This is the greatest state in the United States,” he told Miamians during a recent stop on his statewide “listening tour” to learn how Floridians are being affected by their sluggish economy.

Would Mr. Crist renege on his professed loyalty to the Sunshine State?

Only a formal offer to join the McCain campaign can tell.

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