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Charlie's Horse

How Florida Governor Charlie Crist propelled John McCain to the top of the GOP field.

And then he can give Florida Governor Charlie Crist a lifetime, unlimited mileage pass on the Straight Talk Express, or maybe even a copy of that prized donor list that he had to use as collateral last year to keep his campaign afloat.

It's strange how quickly Crist's last minute endorsement has faded into history. Perhaps it was the exit polling--only 42 percent of Republicans said that Crist's endorsement had been important to them, and only 54 percent of those had wound up voting for McCain--that gave rise to the conventional wisdom that, Sure, Crist helped John McCain win Florida. Somewhat. To an extent. Didn't hurt.

The problem with that analysis, though, is that it's entirely incorrect.

If John McCain accepts the Republican nomination, it will be the direct result of the Florida governor's endorsement. Without Crist, McCain not only would have lost Florida, he would have lost it by double digits--and Mitt Romney would be counting down the delegates to 1,191.

The proof is in the pre-election polling.

For months, McCain's Florida numbers essentially reflected his national standing, plus maybe a point or two of goodwill among Panhandle veterans who respected the Pensacola-trained Naval aviator. When his national numbers bumped up after his win in New Hampshire, his standing in Florida improved as well, and by mid-January he captured the lead from a nose-diving Rudy Giuliani.

Yet his three-point victory in South Carolina on January 19 provided no analogous bump, meaning McCain began his Sunshine State week up about four points over Romney. Much to the McCain camp's consternation, that was actually their pre-election high point. As the week progressed, the polls continued moving in the wrong direction--a point a day on average. By Saturday, three days before the primary, public and internal tracking polls projected at best a tie for McCain, and at worst an 11-point loss. 

The conservative talk show hosts pounding him each day certainly didn't help his numbers, but a more important factor was probably his ground game. McCain didn't have one. A single week is not enough time to organize a state that spans two time zones and holds 18 million people. The morning after New Hampshire, McCain volunteers were scrambling to find office space and lodging for a few paid staff coming down from that state. Romney, on the other hand, had at his disposal the top engineers of Jeb Bush's political machine, which had secured easy wins for the former governor in 1998 and 2002. He also had a dozen campaign workers on the payroll last summer, which doubled to two dozen.

Making the situation even worse going into the weekend was that, with the Thursday night debate already over, there was nothing likely to happen before the primary that could spike McCain's declining poll numbers.

Until Charlie Crist showed up at the Carillon Park Hilton Saturday evening.

A high school and college quarterback, Crist understood the value of not telegraphing your plays. When he arrived at the Pinellas County Lincoln Day Dinner, perhaps a handful of people knew what he was about to do. John McCain was not one of them.

A few days earlier, I asked McCain if he'd happened to talk to Crist yet that day. He glanced at his watch and quipped: "I usually call him hourly."

As it turns out, he was only half-joking. The morning after winning New Hampshire, McCain phoned Crist, asking for his endorsement. And on the Friday before the Florida primary, he tried Crist one last time, reminding him that he would be in Crist's hometown the following night. "You could do it then," he said, according to a McCain supporter familiar with the discussion.

Crist, for many weeks, had operated under the assumption that he wouldn't endorse at all. What was the benefit? Political endorsements rarely make a difference in the outcome, and are usually about minor-leaguers hoping to bank a chit.

Still, over the previous few months, Crist had politely listened to all the candidates who asked. Last autumn, Giuliani rearranged his campaign schedule to clear time for a face-to-face. Romney, after making his own pitch for an endorsement, immediately followed up by asking that if he couldn't endorse him, would he please not endorse anyone at all. He then laid out for Crist why that was the most rational course.

All that final week, it looked as if Crist had taken the advice to heart. But as the tracking polls showed Romney pulling even with and then overtaking McCain, Crist decided to jump in publicly. His personal favorite candidate, the one who had gone out of his way to endorse him in his gubernatorial run in 2006, was going to lose--and he had the ability to do something about it. By this time, of course, the political consultants loyal to Crist were advising him to stay out, according to state GOP insiders. The gap was too big, they argued. You'll only look foolish.

Crist shrugged them off. "How would I have felt Wednesday morning if I hadn't done anything and he'd lost? I felt it was almost my duty," Crist told me last weekend. "I felt like maybe he needed a lift."

That's exactly what McCain got when he opened his hotel room door to let in his unexpected guest. McCain, knowing full well the polling trends, was at a loss for words when Crist told him what he would do in his introduction 10 minutes later, according to people close to both.

As it happened, though, Crist gave McCain more than a little pick-me-up. He also turned over the keys to his political machine, which was already warmed up and humming along. Since December, Crist had been going all out to pass Amendment 1, which increased a property tax break for homeowners and was also on the ballot that Tuesday. It had been one of his campaign promises, and it evolved into a referendum on his leadership. Now, his machine had a second objective.

Before he'd even gone up the elevator, he'd told his "Yes on 1" staff to "shake the trees" and round up as much media as possible. Within minutes, every cable news network had been called and urged to cover Crist's remarks live. Within hours, every Charlie Crist for Governor county chair also got a call: The governor supports McCain. The governor is asking you to support him, too. Those calls led to others, which led to others, and so on. By Monday, Bill Bunting, the Pasco County GOP chair and keeper of a coveted gun show e-mail list, circulated his endorsement, as did the Police Benevolent Association.

Crist, meanwhile, set out to deliver his home base of Tampa Bay. While most observers have picked up on McCain's healthy margins in South Florida--most particularly among Cuban Americans none too pleased with Romney's tone on immigration--a more crucial swing took place in the counties surrounding Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Analysts looking back have theorized that Crist's endorsement pushed turnout far beyond anyone's predictions, and that these additional unlikely voters were far more disposed toward McCain than the traditional, conservative "super-voters," who come out for every primary. That's hard to quantify.

What's easier to see is the disappearance of the 11-point margin (according to Crist's internal tracking poll) that Romney had opened up by Saturday in Tampa Bay. Crist appeared with McCain in that key TV market Saturday night, Sunday, Monday evening, and Tuesday morning. When the votes were counted, McCain had won Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Pasco counties by a seven-point margin. Crist had helped move the numbers 18 points in three days, a swing of more than 40,000 votes. That accounted for a good chunk of the statewide swing of at least 10 points, or 190,000 votes, over the same time period.


"Who the next president of the United States is is going to be important for Florida," Crist said, explaining his decision to endorse. "It would be nice to have a friend in the White House."

Sure it would. Perhaps even more so if your own digs were across the street in the Old Executive Office Building.

It's premature to talk about potential vice presidents now, but not unreasonable, given the circumstances. Crist has now proven he can deliver Florida for McCain. Surely he could do it again come November. And McCain didn't bring Crist along to campaign with him earlier this week in Arizona, California, and New Jersey just because they're buddies.

Crist has been asked about his potential vice presidency dozens of times in recent months. I asked again this weekend, and Crist was smoothly evasive. He is flattered, he says, but is concentrating on being governor of Florida.

In fact, the word has gone out across Crist's domain that VP talk is verboten. Not only is it unseemly, it's not helpful in the bigger picture. But there are slip-ups. When I asked a top Florida Republican what Crist could offer McCain's campaign in, say, Trenton, New Jersey, he replied, "What Charlie brings to the ticket … ". He then caught himself. "What I meant was … ".

S.V. Dáte has covered Florida politics for a dozen years. His most recent book is Jeb: America's Next Bush.

By S.V. Dáte