Charlie Crist's McCain Problem

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Joe Skipper / Reuters

Florida Governor Charlie Crist announces the acquisition of 187,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land from United States Sugar Corp. at an event in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

On the first day of his second annual Florida Summit on Global Climate Change, Governor Charlie Crist was wearing a bright green necktie. It's almost as if he were trying to stifle any doubts about his enviromental street cred, though you would think he shouldn't have to worry right now. It's a day after America's tree-huggers virtually canonized Crist for his stunning announcement that Florida would pay some $1.7 billion to buy out U.S. Sugar, and the company's 187,000 acres of cane fields, to revive the imperiled restoration of one of the nation's eco-treasures, the Everglades. With characteristic ebullience, Crist describes the move like the post-ideological Republican he's become famous for since succeeding the more conservative and partisan Jeb Bush 18 months ago. The U.S. Sugar tract "is land God created as the natural filter for the Everglades ecosystem," Crist told TIME. "This is about getting back to basics and doing the right thing."

But Crist's environmental victory came just as many Floridians and other national political observers had begun to wonder if he was going overboard in a perceived bid to be John McCain's running mate. McCain announced earlier this month that he favors allowing new offshore oil drilling to help ease America's gas-pump nightmare. Crist, who runs a beach-rich state that even Jeb Bush defended against offshore rigs, turned heads when he agreed with McCain. Or he at least said he was "willing to consider" the idea, as he told TIME on Wednesday, but only "if it could be proven to me that drilling off Florida's coast would be far enough, safe enough and clean enough" to avoid disastrous oil spills, especially during the region's hurricanes. "As long as I'm Governor, no Floridian will ever be able to see an oil rig off the coast."

Crist claims that nuance got lost in what he calls "unfortunate" media efforts to paint him as McCain's parrot. But whether or not he's a serious VP contender — and he insists he's "not running for it" — Crist is still the popular G.O.P. chief executive of what is arguably the one major swing state McCain absolutely has to win in November. As a result, as he tries to balance his own convictions with a need to assure Florida's large number of independent voters that he and McCain are on the same page, Crist's stances are being scrutinized almost as closely as the Republican nominee's. "People now see a causal linkage [to McCain] in everything he says," notes political analyst Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Crist insists he's as much his own Guv as he was ever was; "It's just as easy for me to speak my mind and my heart as it was a year ago." Yet for all his refreshing candor, critics say that he has yet to utter the most important words — that he won't accept a vice presidential nod even if McCain were to offer it. The man who has been Governor less than two years now still has too many problems to fix on the peninsula, they argue, including the state's real estate meltdown. On the question of preemptively taking himself out of consideration Crist will only say, "I don't want to deal with hypotheticals." In any case, says USF's MacManus, it's actually to Florida's benefit to keep Crist in the veepstakes game because it "raises not only his stock but the state's."

Still, even environmentalists who sang paeans to Crist on Tuesday when he unveiled the U.S. Sugar deal say they believe presidential politics is driving his openness to drilling. "For a man who's made himself the Everglades governor to consider offshore drilling I find more than a little surprising," says Mark Kraus, vice president of the Everglades Foundation, "especially when the experts say it would take at least 10 years before it had any effect on gas prices." Crist supporters cringed on Thursday when California governor and Crist pal Arnold Schwarzenegger — during his keynote speech at Crist's eco-summit — himself called offshore drilling a phony fix to the oil-price crisis. But Crist argues that industry experts he's talked to posit that increasing U.S. crude output could lower gas prices "much more rapidly" than the decade or more often cited. What's more, Crist believes that "just the mere discussion of more domestic oil production" is making a difference. "Look at the effect it's already having," he says, "in the sense that Saudi Arabia is saying they want to produce more barrels a day" to lower prices and curtail any drastic drop in U.S. demand.

If he's so concerned about the energy crisis, critics counter, he should think less about increasing Florida's offshore drilling and more about changing its onshore consumption habits. Perhaps more than even California, Florida is enslaved to the automobile, and its public transportation infrastructure is practically non-existent. To his credit, Crist has at least started the state's first real alternative energy campaign — Florida Power & Light announced this week that it will soon build three solar power plants, including one at the Kennedy Space Center and another that will be the world's largest. And on Wednesday Crist signed a bill (albeit weakened by the G.O.P.-led state legislature) to finally phase in auto and carbon emissions limits in Florida — including the first "cap and trade" arrangement in the Southeast, whereby companies that exceed their air pollution caps can buy emissions credits from firms that keep pollutants below their caps.

In the meantime, Crist, whose endorsement helped McCain easily win last January's Florida primary, is selling the Arizona Senator to Floridians as "a man who cares deeply about the environment" despite the drilling flap. Earlier this month, for example, he took McCain on an airboat ride through the Everglades after environmentalists raised the issue of McCain having voted against a federal water bill last year that included $2 billion for Everglades restoration. (McCain says he objected to other pork provisions in the measure, not the Everglades funding.)

Just as important, in light of the Democrats' portrayal of McCain as a continuation of the unpopular Bush Administration, Crist is working to present the Senator as a truly moderate Republican. Given McCain's history as a straight-talking G.O.P. maverick, that shouldn't be hard. But issues like offshore drilling have slowed his momentum in the Sunshine State — a new Quinnipiac University poll has Obama edging ahead of McCain in Florida for the first time — making it especially crucial that he win over not only the state's independents but potential crossover Democrats, including still angry Hillary Clinton supporters.

After the pasting the G.O.P. took in 2006, Republican pols like Crist and Schwarzenegger vowed to pull the party "back to its roots," says Crist, "to the moderate, commonsense leadership tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. In Senator McCain we've nominated the best guy to carry that message." And in Florida, it's a banner whose colors will likely have to be more green than red.