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McCain lends Crist a jolt

John McCain stumps to support Charlie Crist calling him "the most qualified candidate" to succeed Jeb Bush.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 19, 2006


MIAMI -— Charlie Crist’s bid for governor got a jolt of energy Saturday from John McCain, the maverick Arizona senator who called Crist “the most qualified candidate” to succeed Jeb Bush.

McCain, Crist and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez barnstormed the state by jet, hitting four key media markets in 24 hours and drawing enthusiastic turnouts and TV cameras at every stop.

In Pensacola, Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville, the size of the crowds and tone of the speeches gave the fly-around a general election feel.

“He’s going to win that general election,” McCain told a standing-room-only crowd of 400 in Orlando, looking beyond Crist’s primary with Tom Gallagher in 2½ weeks. Crist picked up the theme, calling the primary “Victory No. 1” on his way to November.

The largest crowd was in Miami, where 500 people filled a historic downtown theater and cheered as McCain and Crist walked on stage to the sounds of a Cuban salsa band and joined a crowd of Cuban-American politicians and veterans.

“We need a great governor to follow in the footsteps of a great governor, Jeb Bush,” McCain told the crowd, calling Crist a “wonderful public servant.”

The rally gave Crist’s campaign a chance to show its strength on what Gallagher considers his home turf in the county with Florida’s largest pool of Republican voters.

Early voting begins on Monday, and several speakers made appeals in Spanish for Crist’s supporters to cast ballots as soon as possible.

Crist stuck to his familiar broad themes of low taxes, reducing crime and extending Bush’s education agenda, and avoided any mention of immigration, abortion or stem cell research, which tend to open fault lines within the Republican Party.

He struggled a bit with his Spanish. Counting the days to the Sept. 5 primary, he said “anos” (years) instead of “dias” (days) before correcting himself.

The crowd laughed at the slip, and dozens rushed the stage after his speech to shake his hand or take his picture.
McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who ran for president in 2000 and is expected to again in 2008, is one of the most sought-after Republicans on the campaign trail. He came to Florida from South Carolina and is headed next to Ohio.

He was mobbed in Pensacola, a Navy town where he learned to be a pilot and where he recalled nights spent drinking “at that institution of higher learning -- Trader John’s.”

Jewell Bradfield, a longtime Republican activist in Pensacola, wore a Crist T-shirt and called Crist “very well-behaved and very impressive.”

“And I wish I had that tan, don’t you?” she said of Crist’s perpetually bronze complexion.

McCain’s support of the front-running Crist serves the political interests of both men, with McCain eyeing Florida’s 27 electoral votes in the next presidential contest. But he said it was unfair to cast his campaigning in that context.
“I go where they think I should go,” McCain said, referring to his political action committee, “and where I think that a guy is really a good candidate. I’ve known him for a number of years and I really like him.”

Flying aboard a luxurious jet between stops, McCain said he believed Republican politics in Florida was moving “back toward the center,” a conclusion he said he based in part on President Bush’s slumping popularity in the state and on polls showing Democrats faring slightly better than in the past.

The Crist campaign is paying for the use of a luxurious Gulfstream III jet owned by investor Stuart Lasher, a St. Petersburg native and co-chairman of Lifestyle Family Fitness, a chain of health clubs. Lasher, a Crist supporter, also was on the tour.

Gallagher countered the McCain visit by noting the Arizona senator’s opposition to abortion and same-sex civil unions, and Crist’s opposition to a ban on abortions and a recent statement that civil unions are “fine.”

Gallagher’s campaign said the “photo-ops” between McCain and Crist underscore the fact that “Crist’s liberal positions ... put him at odds with mainstream Republicans.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.