Crist: McCain is your best choice

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 27, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - After months of courtship from the Republican candidates, Gov. Charlie Crist threw an eleventh-hour endorsement to Arizona Sen. John McCain on Saturday night.

"We have a lot of great people running for president this year. They would all do well. But we have to think about when it comes to Tuesday who are you going to vote for, who are you going to support. And I have been thinking about it a lot," Crist, with McCain at his side, told several hundred Republicans at the Pinellas Lincoln Day dinner. "I don't think anybody would be better than the man who stands next to me."

Crist, along with still-neutral former Gov. Jeb Bush, was the most sought-after endorsement in Florida, and for months candidates have been paying homage to the popular governor of America's biggest battleground state. Crist's reputation for moderate bipartisanship won't necessarily help McCain win voters skeptical of his conservative credentials, but the governor's backing is a big boost any candidate would relish.

The governor expects to be campaigning for McCain across the state, though nothing is set.

"Is it going to help? No question about it, and it might even make the difference," said former state Sen. Jim Sebesta of St. Petersburg, a McCain supporter. "My only concern is that this is almost the eleventh hour."

Earlier in the night, McCain downplayed the prospects of Crist weighing in on the race.

"I threatened him with everything including having to hire someone to start his car in the morning," McCain quipped.

Two hours later, Crist called him to the podium at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park and made the announcement.

"I thank you for the support of this great governor who is known throughout thenation and the world as one of the great leaders of the 21st century," said McCain, later saying he heard the news "a very short time ago."

McCain was the only presidential candidate who campaigned for Crist in his heated 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary against Tom Gallagher.

Crist had long been known as a McCain ally, but when McCain's candidacy started to fade last summer, speculation increased that Crist would back Rudy Giuliani. In fact, Giuliani allies say that they already had agreed to a date, Nov. 18, when Crist and Giuliani would fly around the state campaigning together and that Giuliani had assured Crist he was in contention for vice president.

Crist had been scheduled to join Giuliani at Orange County's Lincoln Day dinner, but changed his plans to be with McCain.

McCain didn't seem to help his prospects when he voiced opposition to one of Crist's priorities - a national CAT fund.

"This is a slap in the face to every Floridian," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski said.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, also endorsed McCain.

David DeCamp and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.