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Republican Is a Political Force, Despite Party Baggage

By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

WINTER PARK, Fla. -- At a recent fundraiser in this ritzy Orlando suburb, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) was handicapping governor's races with the air of a gambler who liked his odds: "No matter where you go, there's good news for Democrats."

Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio all looked like pickups, with strong Democratic threats in Minnesota and even Arkansas.

And then there was Florida, where Vilsack had traveled to help Rep. Jim Davis, the Democratic nominee to succeed term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush (R). In a supposedly Democratic year, in a supposedly bellwether state, polls showed Davis 15 points behind his GOP opponent, Charlie Crist, the state attorney general.

"Well, Florida will get competitive," Vilsack said.

It has, but Crist is still the front-runner, with an 11-point lead in two statewide polls and single-digit leads in the others. Along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he is hoping to show Republicans across the country how to survive a Democratic wave.

Crist is an exuberant retail politician who puts the "glad" into glad-handing, a Reagan-style optimist with a made-for-TV tan, a made-for-TV shock of white hair and a made-for-radio baritone. He is a genial moderate who is nevertheless known as "Chain Gang Charlie" for his hard line on crime. He is a close ally of the governor, who is far more popular in Florida than President Bush, but he has shown an independent streak by supporting stem cell research and same-sex civil unions and by refusing to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case.

He is also a relentless fundraiser who has outdistanced Davis by more than $12 million, which seemed to discourage many of the Democrats at developer Jim Pugh's Winter Park estate. "Charlie's raising an ungodly amount of money, and he's a terrific campaigner," Pugh said. "It's going to be tough to overcome all that."

Crist has cut into the Democratic base by focusing on civil rights and the environment, choosing a trial lawyer as his running mate, and saturating the airwaves before Davis could respond.

Now that Davis is airing a few ads, some independents seem to be tilting his way. In recent weeks, Crist has changed his positions on property insurance, testing in schools and voting rights for felons, moving left every time, but his Republican label still seems to be a drag. Even though Republicans enjoy comfortable majorities in both houses of the state legislature, GOP leaders are nervous about losing three congressional seats here, including the one vacated by Mark Foley, and incumbent Bill Nelson (D) is dominating Rep. Katherine Harris (R) in the Senate race.

And Davis is happy to have a D after his name this year. "The Republican Party is a money machine in this state -- fueled by the insurance industry and the special interests -- but there's an awful lot of discontent out there," he said.

Ever since the 2000 recount, Florida has been known as the ultimate swing state, but it is really a unique mix of voting blocs, with a slightly Republican trend that swept President Bush to victory in 2004. North Florida is like a small Southern state, with fast-growing Republican exurbs. The southwest part of the state is booming with GOP-leaning snowbirds from Midwestern Kiwanis clubs. Southeast Florida is still jammed with Democratic-leaning retirees from Northeastern states, but many of its residents are dying or moving to the Carolinas to escape the crowds.

The Republican tilt also has a lot to do with the governor, who is almost universally admired for his leadership during hurricanes and is widely respected as a principled conservative -- even by many Floridians who have disagreed with his strong stands on testing schoolchildren, revamping Medicaid and having the government intervene in the Schiavo case. Crist has highlighted his alliance with him, while the Davis campaign has mostly attacked the president and spotlighted issues on which the governor has disagreed with Crist.

"I don't think Jeb's popularity rubs off on Charlie," said Van Church, a political coordinator for the Service Employees International Union. "He's just a politician."

To watch Crist on the campaign trail is to see that he is not just a politician; he's a natural politician. On a recent visit to a printing company in a Miami suburb, Crist bounded out of his car with the joy of a child who had just arrived at Disney World. He hugged his host, Manuel Fernandez, as if he were a long-lost brother: "It's so wonderful to see you!" The two men had never met.

Fernandez then told Crist his story: He arrived from Cuba in 1961 and started working at the company as a $2-an-hour janitor in 1965, when it had only six employees. Now he is the owner, and the firm has 50 employees, including his three children.

"That's America!" Crist shouted with delight. He told Fernandez about his grandfather, Adam Christodoulos, a Greek immigrant who shined shoes when he arrived in the United States and eventually opened his own shoeshine parlor: "It's the same story: the power of the American dream!"

Crist then introduced himself to Fernandez's 90-year-old mother: "Mamacita! You can't possibly be 90 years old!" Next, he kissed Fernandez's 7-month-old grandson: "You're Florida's future!" He praised the rest of the Fernandez clan with a playful slap at Davis, who missed a lot of congressional votes during the campaign: "Such a wonderful work ethic. You know, my opponent doesn't always show up to work."

"I thrive on this," Crist said in an interview. "I love people. And I love Florida. It's got such great weather, such tremendous diversity. Wonderful fishing. What's not to like?"

Florida has a history of boosterism -- not just shady speculators selling swampland, but visionary leaders seeking tourism, immigration and development. Crist fits into that tradition; when it comes to Florida real estate, for example, he sees nothing but smooth sailing ahead. "I'm telling you, it's not just going to be a boom -- it's going to be a sonic boom!" he said.

The Davis campaign has tried to portray Crist as a lightweight who floats with the political winds. But the charges seem not to have stuck. Crist may be swimming against a Democratic tide, but even his opponents think he is a powerful swimmer.

"I think Charlie's fabulous, just a great guy," said Jimmy Goff, a Democratic businessman at the Davis fundraiser. "I think this race will turn around, but it won't be easy."

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