Crist Revels in the Florida Spotlight

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J. Pat Carter / AP

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist

Florida's honeymoon with Charlie Crist ended a while ago, but it doesn't seem to show on the Republican governor's face. Sidling up to a diner counter in a Boca Raton hotel, an hour before the recent G.O.P. primary debate, Crist is still radiating the same beach-cheerful disposition, not to mention the George Hamilton suntan, that won over Sunshine State voters when he took office last January. Sipping coffee in a dark blue suit that seems to brighten his thick white hair, he's savoring what he's convinced are the fruits of one his earliest but most controversial decisions — leading the drive to push Florida's primary election up from March to Jan. 29. "I believe without a doubt it was worth it," Crist tells TIME. "To be the last big state to weigh in before Super Tuesday will only in turn have a deep impact on Super Tuesday, and that's a role Florida deserves to play."

Crist may have deepened that role over the weekend when he endorsed Arizona Senator John McCain, who holds a slight lead in Florida voter polls, for the G.O.P. nomination. It wasn't a surprising choice: asked by TIME a few days before the endorsement whom he would favor, Crist made it clear he was looking for a more moderate Republican like himself, a candidate who could pull the party back to a more electorally viable center — "The kind who knows the value of reducing taxes but also being compassionate," he said.

It was part and parcel of Crist's grand 2008 strategy for Florida. Like seemingly everybody who lives here, Crist, a Pennsylvania native, wasn't born in Florida. But he's arguably the state's most unabashed cheerleader, and like many in the state — which is expected soon to pass New York as the nation's third most populous — he's weary of watching small electorates like Iowa and New Hampshire set the presidential nomination agenda.

He's equally frustrated by all the Flori-duh jokes still rippling from the state's 2000 presidential recount debacle. But for all those laughs at its expense, that mess revealed what a crucial swing state Florida had become, and Crist feels the state was squandering its kingmaker cachet with a primary so late in the season. By leapfrogging ahead of the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests, the Sunshine State has landed in a larger national spotlight — and so has its irrepressibly sunny governor.

But not without a price. If Florida's primary assertiveness stunned the country, it angered both the Democratic and Republican National Committees, whose rules forbade it. Both parties threatened sanctions; but only the DNC came down hard, refusing to seat Florida's delegates at the Democratic convention this summer, essentially nullifying the state's Democratic primary results. The RNC banned some of Florida's delegates too, but it wasn't about to go as draconian as the Dems — whose candidates even signed a pact not to campaign on the peninsula before the primary — and risk weakening the stature of one of its most popular governors.

Crist insists that Florida has won out in the larger picture. For one thing, he argues, Florida struck a much needed blow for reform of the nation's antiquated presidential nomination system. (After Florida moved up its primary, Michigan followed suit, holding its election Jan. 15. It received the same DNC punishment.) Even Florida Democrats agree. Says Congressman Robert Wexler, Barack Obama's Florida campaign chairman, "I think Florida has quite effectively started the move toward primary reform," which he and others hope by 2012 will include something like rotating regional primaries.

What's more, just as Michigan's earlier primary garnered lots of attention for the issue of lost manufacturing jobs, Crist says Florida's concerns are far more front-and-center now than if its primary were held in the spring. "The attention being given this week to Florida and the issues we care about — tax reform, a national catastrophic insurance fund, Everlglades restoration — is huge," he says.

Since he's made a point of reviving the bipartisan cooperation that his conservative predecessor, Jeb Bush, seemed to disdain, Crist also hopes the state's primary moment will point up "the kind of spirit of working together that is exactly what Americans are yearning for right now. They're tired of the bickering, and they want a new way of doing things in Washington." The G.O.P. presidential hopefuls, intentionally or not, seemed to pick up on that in their debate at Florida Atlantic University last Thursday, displaying a more civil tone than the recent spats between Obama and Hillary Clinton — though the name-calling and nastiness between Romney and McCain in the last couple of days put an end to that civility.

Crist is also waging his own campaign in this primary: a state ballot measure to lower Florida's property taxes and reform the tangled way they're assessed. A burgeoning number of Floridians complain that those taxes are spiraling out of their reach. But despite his personal popularity, the initiative is hardly certain to pass. Some critics consider it too watered down; others argue that it will deal a blow to Florida's already thin education spending. Yet even that decision could have an effect outside Florida, since many other states are grappling with the conundrum of exorbitant property taxes and shrinking local government revenues, as the housing bust leads the U.S. economy toward recession. Asked if Florida could be a national model not just in the property tax arena but in insurance reform as well — hurricane coverage premiums are paralyzing Florida home and business owners — Crist acknowledges that "some of it has been incredibly frustrating." But then he chirps with characteristic effusion, "I think what Florida is doing in these areas is nothing short of historic."

In this respect, the earlier primary could help him as well. Whereas past Florida primaries usually garnered below 20% turnouts when they were held in March, long after presumptive party nominees seemed to be decided, Crist is betting that a primary held in the thick of things will produce a turnout closer to 50%. And although he knows that the Democratic boycott could keep it down, all indications from the early voting that has already begun suggest turnout for both parties could hit record highs. That in turn could boost the chances for his property tax measure.

But even if it loses — most voter polls show it getting less than the 60% required to pass — Crist stands to remain popular. Despite the very real problems he's had with the tax and insurance efforts, his approval ratings still hover in the high 50s. Pundits agree that's largely because Crist is at least making the effort on issues that Floridians consider crucial to keeping the middle class viable in a state whose demographics make it an uncanny microcosm of the nation as a whole.

Given all the attention on Florida and the race for the White House, it's no wonder that pundits and politicos are already wondering if Crist, 51, plans to channel his popularity into his own presidential bid some day. He says no candidate has approached him about a possible vice president spot on a ticket. And after a busy year in which he won reinstatement of ex-convict voter rights, ditched the state's controversial touch-screen voting machines, spearheaded a merit pay plan for Florida teachers and convened a major global warming summit in Miami, he insists he's not even thinking about it.

"I'm just focused on the here and now in Florida," Crist says. He adds, "I can't ask for more than what I've already gotten out of this job in the first year, especially from voters and the legislature." That's a nice political sentiment. But after watching Charlie Crist's first year, it's hard not to think that the "Sunshine Governor," as some call him, doesn't have loftier aspirations for the years ahead.