tampabay.com

Crist cruises

The Republican becomes the state's first governor from St. Petersburg.

By STEVE BOUSQUET AND ALEX LEARY
Published November 8, 2006


CHARLIE CRIST: 51.9% JIM DAVIS: 45.4%

Republican Charlie Crist, who packaged an engaging personal style with a moderate message and months of saturation TV advertising, defeated Democrat Jim Davis on Tuesday with 51.9 percent to 45.4 percent in the race for governor with most precincts counted.

Crist, 50, becomes the first governor from St. Petersburg in Florida's 161-year history.

"This is Florida's night," Crist said at a boisterous victory party at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. "Tonight is not my victory . It is your victory. I ran for governor for you. I will go to work every day with the understanding that you are the boss."

Across the bay at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, Davis spoke to a crowd that had thinned as the night wore on.

"Tonight we came close to pulling off a political miracle," Davis said. "There was more money spent against me in this campaign than any other in the state of Florida. And we made it very close."

A handful of second-tier candidates, including Reform Party candidate and Treasure Island resident Max Linn, 47, ultimately played little role in the final result. Linn had sued his way into joining the second debate in late October, but managed to draw less than 2 percent of the vote.

Rainy and blustery weather across the peninsula kept turnout even lower than it would have been for an off-presidential election, and the political climate for Republicans nationally was at its lowest point in decades.

But it didn't hurt Crist. He worked doggedly for 18 months, rising at 5 a.m. and rarely eating more than one meal a day - yet he somehow made it look easy.

For Davis, the defeat crushed his hopes just as his campaign was peaking. After months of toiling in obscurity as a little-known candidate, he gained ground in recent weeks with hard-hitting TV ads and two effective debate performances.

He chose an African-American running mate, Daryl Jones. Former President Bill Clinton raised money for him. The national mood favored Democrats.

But Davis, 49, who has represented Tampa in Congress for the past decade, was slow off the mark in the two-month general election campaign. He had significant trouble raising money, and by the time his TV ads were on the air, the lavishly financed Crist had made Davis' "empty chair" a symbol of missed votes in Congress familiar to many Floridians.

Crist himself made abundant promises to voters to get elected, and as a candidate who vowed to "follow up," he now will be expected to deliver.

He says he will lower taxes, double the homestead exemption to $50,000, reduce property insurance premiums, raise salaries for teachers, seek lower prices for prescription drugs, and pass an "antimurder" bill that keeps probation violators locked up.

Crist's first decision as governor-elect will come today when he is expected to appoint a Miami lawyer to head his transition effort. Roberto Martinez, 53, is a former U.S. attorney who headed a similar transition team in the weeks before Crist became attorney general in 2003.

Crist is sure to offer Floridians a different style of leadership than his predecessor, Jeb Bush. Crist is a populist who is prone to simple, sound-bite-type appeals.

Crist's wire-to-wire victory was a triumph of personality over ideology, a grass roots effort of dozens of phone banks around the state and a TV ad blitz unmatched by any other candidate in the country.

A Nielsen study showed Crist ran 21,214 ads between Aug. 1 and Oct. 15.

Although Crist stressed his opposition to taxes, his breezy campaign style emphasized everyman qualities such as hard work and listening as he navigated his way to the political center, expanding his appeal to include independents and conservative Democrats.

Such was Crist's personal appeal that a series of minor blunders did not stop his momentum. As a lifelong renter, he did not know how Florida's homestead exemption was enforced, and he did not know when the unpopular Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was given to students.

As a divorced, middle-aged man who lives alone in a rented condo, Crist was vulnerable to criticism that he was out of touch with everyday people, especially at a time when hikes in homeowner's insurance and property taxes topped the list of voter worries.

But Crist's upbeat nature washed away those doubts.

When Crist crushed the socially conservative Tom Gallagher by a 2-1 ratio in the Republican primary, his election seemed assured: He had eliminated any doubt that Republicans were wary of his moderate brand of politics.

Crist easily connected with everyday Floridians on the campaign trail in a way that made every 10-second encounter memorable to the voter.

If that weren't enough, Crist also had a $20-million war chest, a party that spent twice that much, and visits from such big-name Republicans as Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

What made Crist's job easier was that Davis made the politically fatal mistake of supporting a state tax to offset a property tax cut. He also had a poor attendance record in Congress over the past two years.

For weeks, all Florida voters saw on their TV screens were Crist's ads showing Davis' empty chair in Congress and his statements on taxes.

Crist represents a new breed of Republican who's tough on crime and taxes, but moderate on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

But his candidacy was always less about issues than connecting with people. He called himself "the happy warrior" in the mold of his heroes, Ronald Reagan and former Sen. Connie Mack.

As the leader of a state with 27 electoral votes, Crist's support will be highly sought-after in the 2008 presidential campaign. The obvious favorite is McCain, who endorsed Crist before the primary.

"I'm confident that with all the qualities that he brings, he will be a national leader in the Republican Party and the nation," McCain said in Jacksonville Monday.

Crist will take the oath of office as Florida's 44th governor at noon on Jan. 2 in Tallahassee.

The unmarried Crist will likely find the elegant two-story Governor's Mansion a dramatic change in lifestyle from his 1,200-square-foot condo in St. Petersburg.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.