On the eve of the RNC 2012 convention in Tampa, former Gov. Charlie Crist tossed a wrinkle into Florida politics by announcing an endorsement of President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney.
Crist's move, clearly timed for maximum media attention, is yet another major step by Crist away from his former Republican Party, toward the Democratic Party and a return to politics.
It will heighten speculation that Crist intends to run for governor or another high office as a Democrat in 2014.
Florida Republicans condemned the endorsement as "repugnant," and "political opportunism, plain and simple," in the words of state party Chairman Lenny Curry.
Curry suggested the move was shameful because it came "while the people of Florida, and thousands of visitors who've traveled here, are facing an emergency" from Tropical Storm Isaac.
In an interview, Crist dismissed the political speculation as he has done repeatedly over the last several months, denying that his backing of Obama had anything to do with his own political future.
He denied the Republican charges that he has changed with political winds, saying, "I think it's more a matter of the party having changed," becoming intolerant and excessively partisan.
He paraphrased a quote attributed to President Ronald Reagan, who switched from the Democratic to Republican Party: "I didn't leave the Republican Party, it left me," Crist said.
Crist published his endorsement in an opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times, his hometown newspaper, saying, "I applaud and share his vision of a future built by a strong and confident middle class in an economy that gives us the opportunity to reap prosperity through hard work and personal responsibility."
He said many Americans have forgotten how severe the nation's economic crisis was in early 2009, and that Obama took "swift, smart and far-sighted" action.
He also sided with Obama in the current partisan war over Medicare, saying the $716 billion in projected savings from the program over the next 10 years under Obama's Affordable Care Act "extended the life of the program by nearly a decade and are making sure taxpayer dollars aren't wasted in excessive payments to insurance companies or fraud and abuse."
Crist's backing of Obama's economic stimulus plan -- including appearing on stage and embracing with Obama in October 2009 in Fort Myers -- was a first step in his alienation from the GOP.
The following year, faced with losing a Republican primary for U.S. Senate to Marco Rubio, he left the party and ran with no party affiliation, losing to Rubio. That race made him anathema to Republicans, who have continued to denounce him.
Earlier this month, Crist announced he will back Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson over Republican nominee Rep. Connie Mack IV.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who has known and worked with Crist for years, added another complaint against at Crist.
Noting that Tampa developer and GOP fundraiser Al Austin was the chief player in bringing RNC 2012 to Tampa, and that Austin was for years one of Crist's most important political supporters, Latvala called the move a betrayal of Austin by Crist.
Austin "treated him like a son," Latvala said. "This is the crowning achievement of Al Austin's career, and Charlie Crist doesn't care, if it gets in the way of his political ambition."
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