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Crist Ridiculed But Ready to Strike Back

Under fire from both Democrats and Republicans, the ever-sunny Gov. Charlie Crist is turning into the most ridiculed man in the state Capitol.

But he also remains the most powerful. As long as Crist is in the governor’s office, he commands the state’s biggest political stage and can, as late Gov. Lawton Chiles once said, “put the ball in play every day.”.

Crist began demonstrating the hold he still exerts over both parties Monday, saying it was “possible” he would summon lawmakers back to Tallahassee to enact tougher public corruption laws. Crist added it was important “to address that as quickly as possible in a responsible way,” although he would not yet commit to calling for a special session.

Crist also said that the state’s $70.4 billion budget, approved by lawmakers Friday, was going to be closely scrutinized. After severing his ties with the state’s ruling Republican Party last week, Crist hinted that plenty of vetoes could be coming as he rebrands himself as an outsider ready to take on both parties.

“I guarantee you, we will go through it very, very carefully,” Crist said.

He also shrugged off the blistering he’s been receiving from the Florida Republican Party – which last week condemned him as a “trial lawyer” and Monday put a portrait of him at GOP headquarters up for sale on eBay.

“That kind of rancor and bitterness is exactly what people are sick of. We have to get away from that,” said Crist, who also dismissed the trial lawyer screed by recalling that “Abraham Lincoln was a trial lawyer.”

“I’m going to ignore the noise,” he added.

As Crist’s break from the party settled in, speculation continues to grow that the governor might veto the entire budget, marking the Legislature as an early target in his new outsider campaign. Crist said Monday that he has not yet received the budget – but once he does, has roughly two weeks to decide.

Former state Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican advising Crist’s Republican U.S. Senate rival, Marco Rubio, acknowledged that the governor can shape the state’s political debate unlike any other candidate or official, although he also said he expects Crist’s political base is fast-eroding.

“He’s got a powerful platform to work from,” said Baxley. “He can veto the budget, he can veto bills. People have to pay attention to him. But that will eventually change.”

Calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee to craft a spending plan more generous to schools and social programs is plausible. A powerful base for his no-party-affiliated campaign could be the education community which rallied behind his veto of Senate Bill 6, which would have erased teacher tenure, a measure backed by virtually all GOP leaders except Crist.

While there may be some political potency to blowing-up the recession-lean budget, a protracted special session also could pull Crist into a riptide of criticism over Tallahassee gridlock.

“My intent is not to do damage,” Crist said Monday. “It’s to help the future of Florida.”

But lawmakers have given Crist plenty of chances to use the governor’s office as a springboard for his freestyle campaign.

With state unemployment benefits potentially expiring for more than 100,000 Floridians in June – after lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on extending coverage – Crist, again, could add loft to his self-styled “people’s candidacy” by bringing lawmakers back for a fix.

He’s also widely expected to veto legislation approved in the session’s waning hours that would require women to pay for an ultrasound and be asked to view the results before obtaining an abortion – a measure supporters say they hope will reduce abortions but which opponents counter as a costly, unconstitutional interference.

Crist, always a moderate on social issues, could burnish those credentials by striking down the GOP-backed bill. Indeed, as long as the budget and bills are before the governor, Crist has plenty of fuel for his retooled campaign.

“He’s liberated, for at least a couple of months,” said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

If the Republican-led Legislature gives the governor direction for his nascent independent run, it may be only fitting. After all, it was the Legislature which also cut him free.

In Crist’s State of the State speech opening the Legislature in March, Democrats provided most of the applause, an early sign of the growing separation within the GOP.

But Crist’s Shakespearean fall may truly be traced back further – to the death of influential Republican moderate Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville last summer, coming just weeks after Crist announced his U.S. Senate campaign amid endorsements from top Republican brass in Florida and Washington.

King’s death forced a special election last fall won by John Thrasher, a former House speaker and close ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

While Rubio slowly climbed in polls propelled by his popularity with the burgeoning Tea Party movement, anger over the spending excesses of Crist’s hand-picked state Republican Chairman Jim Greer led to his ouster in January and blame directed at the governor.

Greer’s successor was Thrasher, who also became a pivotal force in a suddenly more conservative Senate. Thrasher sponsored the teacher tenure bill that became Crist’s Republican Rubicon when he vetoed it.

Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has emerged as one of Crist’s loudest legislative antagonists. Haridopolos’ animosity deepened with the governor’s mid-session veto of a campaign finance bill aimed at giving legislative leaders more control of party fund-raising and spending.

If Crist is going to do battle with the Legislature, Haridopolos effectively called for him to bring it on.

“If the governor wants to lead our state for the remainder of his tenure, he’s got to step up and talk about his ideas,” Haridopolos said. “You can’t just have this Monday morning quarterback approach. You can’t just react to what other people say, after the fact.”

Haridopolos questioned Crist’s leadership ability – as a lame duck governor, now without a political party’s backing.

“Leadership takes responsibility,” Haridopolos said. “He has been mute – other than on political matters, which he’s well-versed on.”

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