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Is it the same old Charlie? A look back at Charlie Crist

In 2006, Charlie Crist was a Republican candidate for Florida governor. This story profiled Crist and much of what was said about Crist then, could be said about Crist now. There also are lessons here for incumbent Republican Governor Rick Scott's campaign. 

A look back at today's Democratic candidate for governor.

By Brian E. Crowley

Walking briskly across the tarmac toward a waiting helicopter, Harkley Thornton has good news for Charlie Crist.


Come July, Thornton says, he's going to have a fund-raiser for Crist's campaign for governor. Crist looks delighted.


Could you have the fund-raiser in June instead? Crist asks in the eager tones of a car salesman pitching the value of leather seats.

Thornton says he would love to do it in June, but he spends that month vacationing in the Bahamas. Crist looks amazed and tells Thornton how lucky he is.

But can you move the fund-raiser to June? It would really help.

The two men are about to board the helicopter at Palm Beach International Airport with a reporter in tow for an aerial view of the Herbert Hoover Dike. Thornton, looking a touch puzzled, shrugs and tells Crist he will talk to his staff about moving the fund-raiser to June.

If possible, Thornton says, he'll come back from the Bahamas for a couple of days.

Crist slaps his shoulder and tells Thornton that would be great.

Smiling candidate plays hardball

For Florida Republicans, Charlie Crist has been the great persuader.

He has persuaded them to give him a whopping $12.8 million in his quest for the GOP nomination for governor.

And, polling suggests, he has persuaded most Republicans to vote for him Sept. 5.

If he wins the primary, the 50-year-old Florida attorney general would enter the general election better known and better financed than the Democratic nominee, either U.S. Rep. Jim Davis or state Sen. Rod Smith. And, some believe, better able to persuade Florida voters that Crist should be the state's 44th governor.

Even his rivals agree that few politicians have Crist's charisma, determination and focus to win. But some suggest that Crist is all style and no substance. He also has been accused of picking popular issues while avoiding tough ones.

Like most politicians, Crist is not shy about fudging the truth to make political points. And he's not afraid to play hardball against his opponents by exploiting any perceived weakness.

Behind the sunny smile, Crist is a gritty campaigner who will question publicly why his political allies are attacking Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, his Republican opponent, but will do nothing to stop them.

Crist, a former high school and college quarterback, says politics is a tough sport and you have to play hard. And he insists that he is always a good sport. He even says nice things about the two Democrats running for governor.

"I think all of the other three candidates in the race are good people, well-intentioned," Crist said during an interview. "They are well-motivated, and I'm not here to attack them."

Embracing 'Chain Gang Charlie'

The name was supposed to be an insult.

In a 1995 editorial, the St. Petersburg Times nicknamed Crist "Chain Gang Charlie." The name stuck. And mostly because Crist adopted it.

Elected to the state Senate in 1992, Crist was showing a knack for grabbing headlines by 1995, when he teamed with an equally ambitious liberal Democratic senator, now-U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, and proposed bringing back prison chain gangs.

Prison officials argued that chain gangs would do more harm than good, but Crist and Wexler suddenly found themselves getting statewide media attention from a gimmick that ultimately never took hold.

More than a decade later, Crist brags about the nickname.

"People know I'm serious about crime," said Crist, who acknowledges that being called Chain Gang Charlie is a good shorthand way of framing the crime issue in a campaign.

He also brags about his support from John Walsh, whose son Adam was kidnapped and murdered 25 years ago. Walsh hosts the television show America's Most Wanted.

And at nearly every campaign stop, Crist talks about his "anti-murder bill."

He starts by talking in passionate tones about the murders of three young girls: Jessica Lunsford, Sarah Lunde and Carlie Brucia. He notes that the killers had criminal pasts and were on probation. He says his new law, which has failed twice in the legislature, would force judges to justify putting someone on probation.

And then, with dramatic flair, Crist says:

"This is a personal promise to you that, if I am elected your next governor, the first bill I sign into law will be the anti-murder bill. How do I know that? I know that because, after I take the oath as your next governor, I will tell the members of the House and Senate I will sign no other bill until they put that one on the governor's desk."

As the audiences nod in approval, what they don't know, and what Crist does not tell them, is that bills in Florida become law without the governor's signature.

When asked whether he is being misleading, Crist disagreed.

"It's very meaningful to me, and the message I'm trying to convey is a lot more than symbolic," he said.

"For 'Do-Little Crist,' it's all about the 30-second sound bite," Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski said after a Crist appearance in June. "Sure, 'anti-murder' sounds great - we're all anti-murder - but Crist's pattern of poor follow-through and botched management leaves Floridians wondering if he can handle the hard work necessary to get things done as governor."

Comfortable with crowds

Few politicians work a crowd like Crist.

While Gallagher sometimes seems uncomfortable mingling with voters, Crist treats every event like a family reunion.

He doesn't just shakes hands, he pulls people toward him. While other politicians look around the room for the next person to meet, Crist gazes at whomever he is speaking with as if that were the last person on Earth.

Call him "Attorney General Crist" and you get back, "Charlie, please, just Charlie."

If you're a cop or a nurse, you get, "Thank you, thank you for what you do."

If you're a supporter, you get, "We're a team, man."

And if you tell him he's going to win, Crist says, "From your lips to God's ears."

At a candidate forum, Crist sat down and struck up a conversation with the woman in front.

"Are you the timekeeper?"


"What's your name?"


"Hi, Eileen. I'm Charlie."

Charles Joseph Crist Jr. was born July 24, 1956, in Altoona, Pa. His father, a physician, moved the family to St. Petersburg when Crist was 4.

Crist said he became interested in politics during his father's successful campaigns for the Pinellas County School Board. Crist played football for St. Petersburg High School, where he was in the National Honor Society. He also played at Wake Forest University before transferring two years later to Florida State University. Crist received his law degree from Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., in 1981. It took him three tries to pass the bar exam.

While in law school, Crist married Amanda Morrow in Delray Beach. The 1979 marriage lasted a little more than six months. They divorced in January 1980. Crist does not comment about the marriage but has said in the past that the two were just too young.

Crist has no children, lives in an apartment, lets his father handle his finances, drives a Jaguar and owns a small fishing boat. He rises every morning at 5:30 and swims laps every day. When he travels, his staff finds him hotels that have a pool. Trim and tanned, Crist said he eats one full meal a day but also nibbles during the day.

As a young lawyer, Crist got a job as general counsel for Minor League Baseball. In 1986, Crist made his first bid for political office, losing a state Senate race. In 1988, he went to work for Republican Connie Mack, who defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay for the U.S. Senate in a race where Mack ran ads saying, "Hey, Buddy, you're a liberal."

In 1992, Crist ran successfully for the state Senate, repeating a campaign slogan he learned from Mack and has used ever since: "Less taxes, less spending, less government, more freedom." And Crist frequently tells audiences that he is a "Ronald Reagan, Connie Mack Republican."

Pouncing on opponents

He often runs his campaigns with a sharp edge.

In his 1992 primary race, Crist changed the words to the Beverly Hillbillies theme song to make fun of opponent Jeff Huenink for missing 14 days of legislative sessions that year. Huenink was a GOP House member hoping to move up to the Senate. He lost the race.

In the general election, Crist defeated incumbent Democratic state Sen. Helen Gordon Davis, who told the St. Petersburg Times that Crist's campaign was "filled with lies and distortions, particularly over this last weekend when we had no chance to respond. It was particularly nasty."

In his 2000 campaign for education commissioner, Crist dredged up a 16-year-old DUI charge against Democrat George Sheldon and turned it into a campaign ad that said: "On alcohol, George Sheldon's record includes a tragic DWI conviction. Now George Sheldon wants to be education commissioner and set an example for our children. Florida deserves better."

The ad was hastily pulled on the same day it began after news reports that George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate, had faced a DUI charge in 1976.

Later on CNN, Gov. Jeb Bush said he had been told about the DUI ad and warned Crist not to use it.

"In fact, a month ago, when it was presented to me as an idea, I said don't do it," Bush told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. "And you know, it is the wrong approach to campaigning, using these types of things to try to give people the wrong impression."

Using his brother as an example, Bush went on to say: "Things that happen in private lives while you're serving, that is fair game. But something that happened 24 years ago is completely irrelevant."

In this race for governor, close allies of Crist's offered reporters copies of Gallagher's divorce records showing that Gallagher had a marital affair 26 years ago and had used marijuana. But Crist said his campaign was not involved in giving out the information.

Crist also has been accused of taking both sides on issues.

For example, Crist insists that he opposes abortion. But when filling out a 1998 questionnaire for the Times, Crist wrote: "I am pro-choice, but not pro-abortion. I believe that a woman has the right to choose but would prefer only after careful consideration with her family, her physician, and her clergy; not her government."

During an August interview with The Post, Crist said: "I'm pro-life. And I believe in a culture that supports life. But I also obviously am very respectful of those who have a different point of view. And I've said publicly that I think it's more important to change hearts than change the law and wouldn't attempt to do so."

Crist says that, if elected governor, he would focus on "keeping taxes down, making Floridians safe and improving education protecting Florida's environment, fighting offshore oil drilling, making sure we do fight for consumers."

He calls himself "a people guy."

Opponents praise 'very good politician'

Sheldon is now a dean at St. Thomas University School of Law. He is also a former deputy attorney general who served under Crist's predecessor, Bob Butterworth.

Although Sheldon is backing Davis for governor, he praises Crist and says he has no hard feelings over the DUI ad that Crist used against him.

"The ad was factual. I did not see it as hitting below the belt," Sheldon said. "Politics is a rough-and-tumble game. He really is basically a nice guy."

And Sheldon said he has been impressed with Crist's performance as attorney general, noting that Crist has surrounded himself with "competent lawyers."

Former Solicitor General Tom Warner, who ran against Crist in the GOP primary for attorney general, said that, despite his earlier belief that Crist was not up to the job, he also has changed his opinion.

"I think he ended up proving himself to be a capable attorney general," Warner said. "He's both a good manager and a good leader."

Equally important, Warner said, Crist is "a very good politician. Charlie really listens to people."

Crist even wound up listening to Harkley Thornton. Although Crist wanted Thornton's money by the June 30 reporting deadline to boost his total for that quarter, Thornton said he persuaded Crist to let him have the fund-raiser in July.

Thornton raised $20,000.


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Why would I vote for turnaround Charlie. He's the I was for it before I was against poster boy. He doesn't even know who he is, how can I be expected to know? Republican, Independent, Democrat he changes with the tide.

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