Five years after his infamous “hug” with President Barack Obama as Florida’s Republican governor, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist is still hugging—even while fighting off a cold.
Washington Post reporter Ben Terris followed Crist on a campaign stop in Fort Myers for a glimpse into the master political salesperson in his attempt to get his old job in the Florida Capitol back.
Back to February 10, 2009, the infamous day where Crist embraced Obama at a Fort Meyers event over support for the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.
“It was the kind of hug I’d exchanged with thousands and thousands of Floridians over the years,” Crist writes in his memoir, which doubles as a 341-page campaign document. “But that simple gesture ended my career as a viable Republican politician.”
The Republican backlash intensified during Crist’s unsuccessful Senate run, during which he told CNN that he never actually endorsed the stimulus in an effort to garner conservative votes away from the Tea Party-backed candidate Marco Rubio.
Crist will tell anyone who listens “the hug that killed me is now maybe the hug that saved me,” writes Terris.
It’s a new Charlie Crist, one that is not unlike the old Crist, but different.
It seems to be working as Crist has a polling advantage over the “budget-cutting” Gov. Rick Scott, who vows to spend upwards of $100 million to stop the former governor. It is a race likely to attract national attention.
No matter how good Crist might look – tanned and with a head of shockingly white hair — $100 million is a difficult number to compete with.
What makes Crist such a powerful politician is that he seems to be sincere with everything he says, from his party change to his belief that he certainly does not need to run for Florida governor.
But Terris notes that could all change, and quickly. Even in a matter of minutes.
As with all master salesmen, Crist can pull out fascinating tidbits on everyone’s hometown, possesses a slightly flirtatious nature, and has a deep affection for everyone he meets. That is why his 2010 run for the Senate, instead of re-election as governor, seemed like a sure bet.
But the rise of the Tea Party swallowed Crist, who became an independent and lost by 19 points. Rubio rode the wave into office.
Now, the Republicans — including some longtime Crist friends — are finding themselves in the role of fundraising against the past GOP governor.
“A two-term governor, that’s the club that gets you considered for greatness,” Republican lobbyist Brian Ballard describes 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 now Crist is just trying to regain lost ground, Terris writes, starting with a significant media tour to promote his book. In interviews, he repeatedly says his Democratic transformation “would have happened anyway.”
Winning over Democrats is not Crist’s problem in 2014; it is converting moderate Republicans, which is the larger challenge. If 2010 was the year of the Tea party, Democrats want 2014 to be a year for self-correction.
With the contentious nature the political landscape, has voters are nostalgic for a bygone age of bipartisan legislating. Wheeling and dealing, disparaged at one time, now looks like the best chance to get things done.
And Charlie Crist—the master salesman — just might be the best man for the job.