Crist endorsement is surprising, risky

Last-minute backing of McCain leaves Giuliani camp fuming.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 28, 2008

For Rudy Giuliani, Nov. 18 was to be a pivotal day on his march to the Republican nomination.

Popular Gov. Charlie Crist was to anoint him as the best choice for Florida Republicans, and the two of them, starting in St. Petersburg, would fly from city to city in Florida, revving up supporters and donors.

By then, the GOP presidential candidate long assumed to be Crist's top choice, John McCain, looked finished.

The courtship began early last summer, when Crist and his top political adviser, George LeMieux, and Giuliani and his top adviser, Tony Carbonetti, met in the Hamptons.

Over the ensuing weeks, the can-do governor and can-do former mayor of New York kept in touch and by early fall, according to Giuliani advisers, Crist had agreed to jump aboard Team Rudy on Nov. 18.

But not if McCain could help it.

"I'm telling you I'm going to win this," the Arizona senator reportedly declared in an Oct. 2 meeting with the governor in Tallahassee. Forcefully and full of confidence, McCain urged Crist to wait until after the New Hampshire primary to make an endorsement.

By Halloween, the Giuliani campaign realized it needed to scrub the plans for Nov. 18.

On Sunday, they were fuming.

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There may be no move Crist has made as governor that stunned so many friends and political insiders as his last-minute endorsement of McCain on Saturday.

The campaigns of Mitt Romney, Giuliani and, yes, McCain were convinced until the end that Crist would remain neutral.

Keeping Crist on the sidelines, in fact, had been the main goal of the Romney campaign, which had been talking to LeMieux about playing a senior role in that campaign.

For Crist, the move is a risky one, but one with a big payoff if it makes him look like a kingmaker.

In becoming the first governor of an early election state to endorse, Crist risks antagonizing allies, damaging the prospects of the Amendment 1 tax initiative so closely associated with him and, if McCain loses, raising questions about his influence.

Former state House Speaker Alan Bense, a Romney supporter in the Panhandle, said he had received 48 phone calls from people wanting to help Romney since the Crist endorsement. "Apparently it was not good for Senator McCain," he said. "This is a very conservative part of the state."

Don't kid yourself. Romney and Giuliani would have loved Crist's embrace. For months the campaigns have been courting Crist, and advisers including LeMieux and state GOP chairman Jim Greer have been in close contact with the campaigns about the prospect of Crist's backing.

Some of Crist's biggest supporters were shaking their head Sunday at Crist's move, but the upside is obvious.

If McCain wins what looks like a neck-and-neck race with Romney in Florida, Crist may well get credit as the guy who delivered Florida and the nomination to McCain. It's no secret Crist and his team see the governor as vice presidential material, and the Giuliani campaign tells me Crist's people wanted a promise that Crist be on Giuliani's short list for running mate.

In reconstructing Crist's path to endorsing McCain, it's clear that Crist did not decide until Saturday. And not until late afternoon did the news spread beyond a handful of people, including his father, his most trusted adviser.

Only Friday morning, Crist left a personal message on Romney's cell phone raving about the former Massachusetts governor's debate performance the night before. McCain himself didn't know about the endorsement until 15 minutes before it happened, and fuming Giuliani campaign staffers learned of it when Fox News aired the news.

McCain told the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday that he and his wife, Cindy, were relaxing in their room at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park on Saturday night, waiting for the start of the Pinellas Lincoln Day dinner. Crist stopped by.

"He sat down and said, 'I intend to endorse you,'" recounted McCain, who only an hour earlier had told the Times he did not expect a Crist endorsement.

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U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez also endorsed McCain, but Martinez is not nearly as influential as Crist and in some Republican quarters could even hurt McCain by reminding people about McCain's controversial plan to overhaul immigration laws.

Meanwhile, the still neutral Jeb Bush sounded unimpressed with Crist's endorsement: "I respect the governor's decision, but Republican voters will determine who they want among very fine candidates. I look forward to working for our party's nominee in the general election," he said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Crist, I'm told, woke up in St. Petersburg on Saturday and made up his mind.

"I just feel in my heart he's the right man for the job at the right time. He's a great leader," said Crist, calling it a "gut" call.

In Florida politics, underestimating Crist's gut instincts has never been wise.

Times staff writers Wes Allison and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or 727893-8241.