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In Florida, liking Crist is a breeze

The new governor, who has swum against the GOP's tide, enjoys a 73% approval rating.

June 02, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Seventeen hours into a day that included three flights, a dinner speech and time spent slashing $459 million from the state budget, Gov. Charlie Crist breezes into an empty hotel restaurant before a 10 p.m. meeting. There's not a wrinkle in his suit or a snowy white hair out of place, but he wouldn't mind a glass of water.

Crist doesn't dispatch one of his half-dozen aides for it -- he heads straight through the swinging doors into the kitchen, startling server Tracy Cooper, who is closing for the night.

"It's great to meet another one of my employers!" Crist says enthusiastically, clapping Cooper on the shoulder. When he gets the drink, he follows up with a hyper-cheery, "Thank you, boss!"

Crist moves among his constituents as if he's still campaigning, missing no opportunity to convey with studied humility and solicitation that he's hard at work for every soul in the state, regardless of party affiliation.

After eight years of the popular but polemic Jeb Bush, Crist's aisle-crossing style has won him unprecedented approval ratings for a Florida governor, and a reputation for compassion and moderation. He is, in a Miami columnist's characterization, "a Republican golden retriever who throws his arms around just about everyone."

When Crist ran for the GOP nomination to follow Bush into the governor's mansion, he cast himself as the next best thing to the president's archconservative brother.

But in fewer than five months in office, Crist has often swum against the GOP tide. He restored voting rights for ex-convicts, even though they tend to vote Democratic. He has proposed expanded stem cell research. Crist has increased teachers' pay and last week made sure that future electronic voting will retain a paper trail, needed for recounts in the event of another of Florida's infamously close elections.

Floridians have responded to the change with approval bordering on glee. In a March poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, Crist earned a 73% positive rating, including 71% support among Democrats. GOP leaders quietly worried after his Nov. 7 victory that Crist would never match Jeb Bush's 60% popularity numbers.

"It's humbling," Crist said of Floridians' support. He said his freshman-year achievements were driven by a sense of right and wrong, not party platforms.

"I'm proud of my party. I'm proud to be from the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan," Crist said. "I just think it's more important to work with all of the people for the benefit of the people rather than being partisan in how we conduct our business."

Describing himself as "a Floridian first," he said he hoped to help the polarized voters of his swing state to find consensus.

"I think they're frustrated by what they see in Washington. They hate the bickering. It drives them crazy," Crist said. "It drives me crazy, and I'm sort of in politics."

Sort of? The 50-year-old governor has been running for office since he was quarterback and class president at St. Petersburg High School, then moving on to the Florida Legislature and legal positions in the Tallahassee hierarchy. He was the state's first elected Republican attorney general in 2002.

Crist left Tuesday for Israel on his first international trip as governor, with five elected Democrats and two Republicans. The sojourn could signal national ambitions: Even if he serves the two-term limit as governor, the fit and seemingly indefatigable Crist will be just 58 when he leaves state office.

Crist said he expected to convene a national summit on global warming in the next month or so with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for whom he expresses admiration and kinship as another unconventional Republican.

"And my sister Elizabeth just loves him. Loves him!" he said of his younger sibling, a radiation oncologist who lives in Laguna Beach.

Crist credits U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat he calls "a dear friend," with restoring the voting paper trail, probably his most crowd-pleasing decision. Like many Floridians, he says he doesn't want his state "to be embarrassed more," referring to close votes like the 2000 presidential election and the challenged 13th Congressional District outcome last year that couldn't be reliably verified.

"You get a receipt when you go to an ATM or the gas station.... But this most sacred act we do in a democracy, you couldn't get a record of it!" Crist said with disbelief.

Though Crist has won accolades, he has yet to deliver on priority issues for voters. He promised during the 2006 campaign to cut property taxes and rein in insurance rates that have become unaffordable for many homeowners in a state prone to hurricanes, wildfires and tornados.

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