Survival of a salesman: Charlie Crist tries to get back where he once was

February 19

Charlie Crist doesn’t take to bed when he gets sick. He takes three Red Bulls, two cups of coffee, a glass of Mountain Dew, Sudafed and cough drops. Then, he discards the box of Mucinex his 81-year-old father suggested he take, pushes through the back door of a Fort Myers restaurant and wraps his arms around his Democratic supporters.

“I can’t help it; I have to hug,” he says afterward, when asked whether he worries about passing on his cold to voters. “Can you even imagine not hugging?”

Crist certainly couldn’t imagine it back on Feb. 10, 2009. Five years ago to the day, in this very town, the then-Republican governor introduced President Obama to a roaring crowd, threw his support behind the $787 billion economic stimulus bill and then — in classic Crist style — embraced the president in what Stephen Colbert dubbed a “terrorist nipple bump.”

“It was the kind of hug I’d exchanged with thousands and thousands of Floridians over the years,” Crist writes in a 341-page campaign document that doubles as his memoir. “But that simple gesture ended my career as a viable Republican politician.”

Months later, in the midst of a failed Senate primary campaign against Marco Rubio, Crist told CNN that he in fact never endorsed the stimulus measure and hammered Obama as a profligate spender. But that was many Crist memes ago. That was when he was trying to compete with tea party hero Rubio for conservative cred, before he left the Republican Party to become an independent and before he left the “Nowheresville” of being an independent to complete his transition to the Democratic Party.

“The hug that killed me is now maybe the hug that saved me,” he says these days to anyone who will listen. Meet the new Charlie Crist, same as the old, only completely different. The message is working, as Crist leads in the early polls against the budget-cutting Gov. Rick Scott. Of course, this is before the GOP governor spends upward of $100 million to pick Crist apart in what is one of the most widely watched governor’s races in the country. And although Crist might look like he spends all day on a yacht, with his John Boehner tan and full head of white hair, that’s a sum of money tough to compete with.

Still, there’s a thought in Florida that if Crist, 57, could just meet every voter in Florida, he’d win.

“He has all the intellectual horsepower of yogurt,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant and Crist critic. “But I admire his political skills. If Rick Scott could work a room like Charlie Crist, he’d be up by 25 points.”

That, in a nutshell, is the popular Crist narrative. Big smile. Great enthusiasm. Lots of charisma. But push him into the deep end and he’ll drown.

Over the past 20-some years, Crist has described himself as pro-life, pro-choice, opposed to same-sex marriage and for it. He has held shackles over his head to call for the reinstatement of chain gangs along the side of the highway, but also fought for nonviolent felons to have the right to vote. He has been a “Jeb Bush Republican,” a “true conservative,” a “moderate,” an independent and now a “Florida Democrat.” For his supporters, it’s proof that their candidate can change his mind when given a new set of facts. For his critics, it’s a sign that the only thing he cares to sell is himself.

“I started off as a young guy working against him, despising him because I thought he was going to destroy our party because he doesn’t believe in anything,” said Alberto Martinez, who helped on a 2006 campaign against Crist and then as an adviser to Rubio (he’s now Rubio’s deputy chief of staff). “By 2010, I felt really sorry for him. He’s almost a tragic figure, I think. He just needs this so desperately.”

Under neon lights at the fundraiser, Crist looks up from his sunken puppy-dog eyes into a crowd listening to every last word, applauding during his pregnant pauses. “I have a great life; I don’t have to do this,” he says, mentioning his boat, his beautiful wife and his decent salary.

What often makes Crist such a convincing politician is that he appears to believe everything he says, whether it’s that he didn’t leave the party (the party left him) or that he doesn’t truly need this run for governor. The only question is how quickly all that could change.

Sometimes it takes only minutes.

“I do have to do this,” he tells me, getting behind the wheel of his car and putting on a pair of sunglasses that go from red to blue when he turns his head. “I’m happy to do it, but I think I have to.”

Winners and losers

“Be liked and you will never want,” Willy Loman, the main character in “Death of a Salesman,” famously said.

Crist seems to have been guided by a similar principle since he was just a 9-year-old running around a Florida fish fry handing out cards for his dad’s school board campaign.

“Everyone was nice to me,” he writes in the opening chapter of his recently released book, “The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.” “They listened to what I said.”

Crist has perfected the art of being liked. He has small talk for everyone’s home town, (“You’re from Mulberry — that’s where the phosphate museum is!”), a way with older women (“I’ll call you Charlie’s Angels!”) and of course an undying affection for everyone he meets (“No, I love you more!”).

So when Crist ran for the Senate instead of reelection as governor in 2010, it was because it looked like a sure thing. But that was the year the tea party reached its peak, with Rubio riding the crest. Crist got swallowed under, became an independent and lost the election by 19 percentage points. Suddenly, there was nobody to hug him back.

“Winners have more friends than losers do,” Crist writes in his book, referring tothe loss.

Some of his friends, however, point out that he brought it on himself. Brian Ballard, a fundraiser and Republican lobbyist, now has the “awkward” job of raising money against Crist, a man he has worked with and considered a friend since 1986.

“A two-term governor, that’s the club that gets you considered for greatness,” Ballard recalls telling then-Gov. Crist. “He would have been elected with 70 percent of the vote, he’d have $50 million in the bank already to run for president and he’d be one of a handful of guys who would be on that stage.”

But Crist doesn’t have time for pastoral fantasies; he’s just trying to get back to where he once was.

On the way from a fundraiser to a nearby Holiday Inn Express, where MSNBC’s Ed Schultz will interview him via satellite, Crist warms up his talking points. His Democratic conversion “would have happened anyway,” he tells me, making direct eye contact even though he’s driving.

“I think I told you earlier,” he says, Republicans “are now perceived as anti-woman, anti-minority, anti-gay couples, anti-environment, anti-education. The list goes on. Pretty soon, there’s no one left in the room.”

Crist hadn’t told me that earlier, but he had told Piers Morgan, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and the folks at “Morning Joe” (it had been a busy week, as the book launch put his campaign into overdrive).

At the previous stop, Crist bragged to the crowd that his finance director, a former Obama campaign staffer named Jessica Clark, had helped him raise more money (about $5 million in 21 / 2 months) than any Democratic gubernatorial candidate had raised over a similar period.

But now, as we arrive at the hotel, Clark is nowhere to be seen. Crist sent her to Target. While Crist sits patiently in a chair, rubbing anti-glare cream on his face, Clark jumps a curb in her car, carrying a mini tower fan. Crist can’t be seen sweating. “I definitely broke a few laws to get this,” she says, bursting into the room with moments to spare. She puts the fan on the ground beside Crist. But it’s not hitting him quite right. So she kneels on her leaf-print skirt and holds it up, the cool air kissing Crist’s face as it glows in the spotlight.

“Sorry,” he mouths to her.

“Don’t write about this,” she mouths to me.

After the interview, one of the hotel maids stops Crist as he is leaving. She has a gold tooth, a silver cross around her neck and a knot of hair atop her head. She says that her name is Loretta Baker, and that ever since she saw him on television last month, she had been dreaming about talking with him. Having served time in prison for felonies, she wanted him to know she appreciated the work he had done to restore rights for nonviolent felons. She also wanted to tell him about her struggles getting a job.

Crist interrupts her mid-sentence.

“My grandfather once asked me, ‘You know why a pencil has an eraser?’ ” he says. “ ‘Because everyone makes mistakes.’ ” Crist has said this dozens of times, even put it in his book. Baker doesn’t mind. She’s beaming.

“You just made my year,” she says. “Can I give you a hug?”

‘Solid purple’

If 2010 was about the arrival of the tea party movement, with Florida as ground zero, Democrats in the state are hoping that this year could be the first step in self-correction. It’s incredible, really, but the political climate has left many nostalgic for the good ol’ days of legislating. The wheeling and dealing, once the scourge of politics, now at least look like ways to get things done. If it’s time to trade in the recalcitrant for the amenable, Crist may be the best man available.

“Democrats might be slow to embrace him, but they’ll get there,” Will Prather, a former chairman of the Lee County Democratic Party, told me. “The reality will kick in that he’s the best shot.” As Willy Loman would say, “He’s liked, but he’s not well liked.”

By the time of the general election, winning over Democratic voters won’t be the problem. Crist knows this, which is perhaps why instead of heading over to a group of newly minted volunteers who have been waiting an hour to meet him, he decides it’s okay to shoot a quick game of pool.

When the Buffalo Wild Wings near his upcoming book signing doesn’t have a table, he shepherds everyone back into the car for a five-minute drive over to a place called Sidelines Sports Bar and Grill.

“We have time,” he says as we arrive and head into the roadside bar. Crist racks up the pool balls and breaks. The one he sinks is the four ball.

“It’s solid purple,” he tells me. “Is that a metaphor for something?”

Crist doesn’t even bother finishing the game. He has me beat, but doesn’t need to rub it in. Plus, he needs to glad-hand the waiting volunteers, then wade his way through a head-bobbing crowd of angry Republicans into the bookstore for his book signing.

About 20 men and women (and one young child who has memorized lines about giving so much money to taxes that he hardly has any left to spend on himself or give to God) make up the protest group. Most of them hoist posters of Crist hugging Obama in celebration of the “Hug-iversary.” The last time anyone at Books-A-Million remembered there being protesters, Karl Rove was speaking.

“We think it’s unseemly to switch parties the way he did,” said Randy Krise, a man with his name on his shirt and a giant Bluetooth in his ear. “Either you have values or you don’t.”

A truck drives by with a sign bearing the silhouette of a sprinting man, with the words, “Charlie Crist Ran Away,” and the crowd whoops and hollers. But inside the bookstore, it’s a different story. More than 150 people stand in line to get Crist’s autograph. A tracker from the Republican Party films the whole thing, his arm shaking after an hour of holding up his iPhone.

“I want one of these,” Crist says when a supporter brings in one of the Hug-iversary posters for him to sign. Here, Crist isn’t seen as a flip-flopper, but as a guy willing to “evolve.”

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Crist says (over and over again) as he signs books.

It’s a pretty good mantra for someone who has changed it up so many times. By this definition, Crist just might be the sanest candidate to ever run in Florida.

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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