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Crist delights at GOP dinner

Florida's attorney general gets a warm welcome at the Ronald Reagan Day Dinner.

Published May 22, 2005

NEW PORT RICHEY - Attorney General Charlie Crist didn't come with a prepared speech, just a neatly folded piece of paper with his gubernatorial campaign themes scrawled in blue ink:

Crime. Taxes. Education. Bush. (School) Choice. Reagan. Democracy. "Adam."

Those were the only talking points he needed to earn rousing applause and a standing ovation Friday evening at the Ronald Reagan Day Dinner, the Pasco GOP's annual fundraiser.

"We have fun as Republicans because we're winning and we're not going to stop," Crist told the capacity crowd.

Early polls have put Crist in the lead among those seeking to replace Gov. Jeb Bush. Crist doubts Bush will endorse anyone in the primary, but the attorney general offered himself as the logical successor.

If Crist is elected, he told the crowd, "The legacy of the greatest governor we ever had will continue, especially in the area of education."

He also repeated the Republican mantra of less taxes, less government and more personal freedom, while calling for extra vigilance to protect children from sexual offenders.

The GOP dinner was as much a rally for Crist as it was a celebration for Pasco County Republicans, who are still basking in the glow of the 2004 elections.

When early election night returns showed the president carrying Pasco County, Gov. Jeb Bush called his brother and told him not to worry about Florida. A few days later, the New York Times ran a front-page article that featured Pasco County as a prime example of the president's successful re-election strategy in Florida, where Republicans focused on suburban and rural areas instead of major cities.

All of that cemented Pasco's status as a crucial bellwether county, Sheriff Bob White told the crowd.

With the governor's race around the corner, White said, "My message is simply this: Watch Pasco County."

Crist, a longtime St. Petersburg resident who considers Pasco his back yard, said he'll be watching.

"(Pasco) won it for the president," Crist told the Pasco Times. "It's hugely significant to me."

And the party faithful here show no signs of slacking. Normally, nonelection years see a drop in attendance at party functions like the annual dinner.

But this year, Pasco GOP chairman Bill Bunting sold 521 tickets to the $55-a-plate dinner - up from 317 last year. He said he had to turn others away because he couldn't fit any more tables into the ballroom at Spartan Manor.

Why the surge in attendance?

"Are you kidding me?" Bunting said. "It's Charlie Crist."

Bunting lined up on stage with other party leaders from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties to offer their personal support to Crist. While praising Crist for his less-taxes stance, Bunting reminded other GOP officials that lower taxes should be a top priority.

"When you have an "R' next to your name, you have to be a Republican, and I hope everybody stands for that," Bunting said as the audience applauded.

So what, then, of "Adam," the final item on Crist's talking points?

That's his cue to tell the story of a Greek immigrant who came to America at age 14, earned his way shining shoes and eventually opened his own cafe.

Adam made sure his seven children got the best education, Crist told the crowd. One of those kids, a doctor, became Crist's father.

Adam has passed away, Crist said, but "I know he's proud his grandson is the attorney general of the fourth largest state in America."

The room burst into applause.

"Only," Crist said, "in America."

[Last modified May 22, 2005, 01:07:21]

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