John McCain's Veepstakes: Charlie Crist

Concluding an interview with Charlie Crist on July 2, I reminded the governor of Florida that I had seen him earlier this year at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington. The woman he had escorted to the event, I said, was stunning.

“I agree with you completely,” he replied, with a laugh.

Six days after the interview, the governor and that same woman, New York socialite Carole Rome, announced their engagement. News of their fall wedding made headlines nationwide, and even got high-profile coverage in the Daily Telegraph of London.

The press attention afforded the 51-year-old Crist and his upcoming marriage (his second) underscored the ongoing speculation about the Floridian as John McCain’s running mate. Two years after he became the Sunshine State’s fourth Republican governor since Reconstruction, Crist is almost always on the short lists of press guesses about whom McCain will choose to run with him.

Along with the strong belief that he could put Florida’s 27 electoral votes in the Republican column with ease, Crist’s vice presidential stock is high because he was a key player in McCain’s wrapping up the nomination early. Following a narrow McCain victory in South Carolina, as the Arizona senator prepared to enter the Florida primary, the governor (who statewide polls showed as commanding popularity ratings in the 70s) suddenly endorsed McCain — a move that surprised fellow Florida Republicans and even McCain himself.

“I didn’t talk to him about it ahead of time,” Crist told me. “He asked for my endorsement earlier, as did others. I knew him before that, through my old boss [former Republican Sen.] Connie Mack. They got elected to the U.S. House the same year [1982]. I think an awful lot of Sen. McCain. He’s a true American hero. I sure hope he wins”

Almost every news story about McCain’s narrow win in Florida over Mitt Romney, and the resulting momentum for the Arizonan, included reports of the impact of Crist’s endorsement. At the National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia last week, Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell was discussing with reporters the clout a governor can pack in delivering a primary state to a presidential candidate.

“If Gov. Crist in Florida had endorsed Romney instead of McCain,” concluded Rendell, “I’m sure we would be having an entirely different discussion tonight about possible running mates.”

‘A Teddy Roosevelt Point of View’

Almost every profile of Charlie Crist these days focuses on his record on the environment. The Wall Street Journal dubbed him “a high-profile pioneer of a potential third way: being pro-alternative energy and conservation but also open to more oil exploration, provided it is done with care for the oceans and the beaches.”

Crist himself embraces this characterization and traces his strong environmentalist views to growing up in Tampa Bay. As he told me, “I used to go fishing with my Dad when I was a kid — he’s my best friend — and seeing the depletion of fish and some of the erosion of our coastline, is what brought me naturally to a Teddy Roosevelt kind of view on conservation — in Florida and in our country as well.”

 Does he feel climate change and global warming should be studied and action be taken on it?

“I think both,” Crist replied without hesitation, “You know, I think studying things is always important to continue to do — you can always learn more every single day. But I also think we need to take action. Even for some who may not believe that global warming is occurring, at least from a Florida perspective, the kinds of things you would do would only help our environment, and that helps us with our very important tourist industry. I’m a free enterprise guy and I want to make sure that we provide as many jobs opportunities for our people as possible. And in Florida, our environment and our economy are inextricably linked and that means trying to protect our beaches and our ecosystems and the kind of things people have come to expect out of a state — and I’m very biased — as beautiful as Florida.”

 That’s why Crist has put solar panels on the roof of the Governor’s Mansion and signed an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. He has also ordered, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “state regulators to give priority to renewable energy programs and conservation programs before approving new coal-fired power plants. He also continues to defend his green bona fides — .he opened a climate change summit featuring diplomats from around the world.”

Such actions and positions have provoked criticism of Crist as “too green” from Republican Florida House Speaker Mario Rubio, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and others. Comparisons have been made between Crist and California’s non-conservative Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose former environmental protection chief, Terry Tamminen, has advised Crist on global warming and whom Crist calls a “wonderful guy.”

“I think a great deal of Gov. Schwarzenegger,” Crist told me, “But he differs with Sen. McCain and me on off-shore oil drilling. I agree with [Schwarzenegger] on most things but we have a minor disagreement on this particular issue. I think that we ought to at least consider it. I’m sure you know that the senator came out with a position a couple of weeks ago now, in which he supported lifting the federal moratorium [on drilling] and leaving it to states to make their individual decisions relating to that issue. I agree with Sen. McCain on that, I think that Gov. Schwarzenegger takes a different view.”

Crist also noted that his social views are different from those of Schwarzenegger. Strongly pro-life, Florida’s governor is “supporting the marriage amendment in Florida which would ban gay marriage.” Like his Republican predecessor Jeb Bush, Crist strongly supports school vouchers and greater local control of education and recalled that “when the opening came for state education commissioner, it was Gov. Bush who recruited me to run. If there was an issue we disagreed on, I can’t think of it. He was a great governor.”

But it is his onetime boss Connie Mack whom Crist cites most frequently as a mentor, citing the former senator’s slogan “Less taxes, less government, more freedom” as a personal credo. It is with that in mind that he successfully pursued a property tax cut this year.

“There’s several facets to it,” he explained. “What it does is expand the homestead exemption — doubles it essentially. Previously it had been about $25,000 that each homeowner would receive. Now it’s on average, about $50,000. It also creates something called portability. We had a scenario where if you had lived in your homestead for a period of time, there was a limit on how much it could increase annually — 3% per year — based on another constitutional amendment that I helped support called “Save Our Homes” several years ago. This extends that “Save Our Homes” protection to no more than 3% increase to your next home, so that’s a significant savings as well. And there may be more to come. We have every 20 years in Florida a constitution revision commission that has the authority to put on the ballot constitutional amendments, and they’ve done so, and then the one that relates to this issue — property taxes — would be another 25% property tax reduction in Florida across the board, not only for homestead but for second homes, for businesses, I mean on every property.”

 A graduate of Florida State University and the Cumberland School of Law, Crist got his start in politics on the staff of Sen. Mack. He was elected to the state senate in 1992, made a hopeless race for the U.S. Senate in 1998 against popular Democrat Bob Graham, and then became Jeb Bush’s education chief. In 2002, he was elected state attorney general and, after winning a landside primary victory in ’06, won the governorship by a margin of 52% to 45% over Democratic Rep. Jim Davis.

Any interview with Charlie Crist begins and ends with the vice presidential talk. So it was with us. When I mentioned the speculation about his running with McCain, he told me: “I’m flattered that people would even consider that as something that’s in the realm of possibility. To be honest, I’m still amazed and enormously pleased to be the governor of this beautiful state that I love so much.”

(This is the fourteenth Veepstakes article. Already profiled have been Alaska Gov. Sarah Pallin, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.)