Crist says he’s ‘lonely’ on campaign trail

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist says it is “very lonely” running as an independent.

Since he quit his party, Crist says he has discovered that people he thought were friends turned out to be only Republican friends, who dropped Crist after he left the GOP.

Crist has lost so many campaign staffers that his sister is now running his third-party effort.

“When you’re not affiliated with a party, it can be very lonely, particularly initially,” Crist told The Hill in an hourlong phone interview.

Still, he insists he has no regrets about his decision, and offered criticism for the GOP activists who took a stand against him after he supported President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package.

“It just became increasingly apparent to me that a segment of the party was drifting so far to the right that it just wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable anymore,” Crist said.

“That level of acrimony and bitterness is what frustrates people today. There is this focus on being loyal to a party over the people, and it’s just wrong,” Crist said.

Crist won’t say which party he will caucus with in the Senate, if he is elected. When asked if he still considers himself a Republican, however, his answer is clearer: “I’m an independent. I’ve changed my registration.”

The governor won’t provide details on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) courtesy phone call last month, but said Reid was “gracious” and expressed a desire to open a line of communication.

Asked if he has been called by top Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) or National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), Crist laughed, “No — not surprisingly.”

Bitterness toward Crist remains palpable among his state’s Republican leaders.

Florida Republican Party Chairman John Thrasher put an oil painting of Crist up for sale on eBay with a written description that was so critical the online auction company edited it.

“A lot of people feel betrayed,” said Thrasher, who hasn’t talked to Crist in months.

“He ran for state senator as a Republican. He ran for attorney general as a Republican. He ran for governor as a Republican. A lot of people invested time and sweat and energy in him, not to mention money. I think there is a lot of not bitterness, but certainly feelings of betrayal. I mean, he turned his back on people when things got tough for him.”

National Republicans criticize Crist for not returning donations from those who thought he was a Republican. National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said it shows Crist’s “lack of principle” and noted that Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) returned hundreds of thousands of dollars when he switched parties last year.

Crist says only “10 at most” have asked for a refund, and his answer has been a polite no.

“I told them they gave it to a good cause, and I’m going to spend it on a good cause,” Crist said. “Nothing has changed in that regard.”

Given the acrimony, Crist’s run as an independent against Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) will be anything but easy.

Peter Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, noted that Crist can’t rely on any existing party infrastructure in a state with vast and varying media markets.

“He starts with a name recognition edge and a pretty good job approval rating,” Brown said. “On the other hand, this is uncharted waters. Many people have raised the Joe Lieberman analogy, but in Connecticut the Republicans laid down for him and nominated a weak candidate, so [Lieberman] got a huge chunk of Republican votes. I don’t see the Republicans laying down for Charlie Crist.”

Crist starts the race leading in the polls and in campaign funds. A recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News poll put Crist at 30 percent, compared to 27 percent for Rubio and 15 percent for Meek. The most recent Federal Election Commission records show he had $7.6 million at the end of March, compared to $3.9 million for Rubio and $3.7 million for Meek.

The governor also won his last three statewide races, having been elected education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006. He said he relishes the chance to test voters’ open-mindedness, and noted that the strength of the Tea Party movement behind Rubio has yet to be tested in a general election.

“It’s a state where if you don’t have Democratic, Republican and independent support, it’s hard to win,” he said. “I realized that as commissioner of education, attorney general and governor, that as a Republican, if I didn’t get that crossover vote, you simply wouldn’t have been victorious in any of those races.”

The governor has staked out a different position from his former party on offshore drilling since the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

He emphasized his opposition to expanded drilling in the Gulf and noted that tourism, Florida’s largest industry, relies overwhelmingly on the state’s beaches.

On Friday, Crist toured the oil spill with Obama, reminding some observers of the intense criticism Crist took for supporting the president. The governor’s decision to support the stimulus plan was called “unforgivable” by former Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

But Crist is unapologetic about his embrace of Obama, who carried Florida with 51 percent of the vote in 2008.

He said accepting stimulus money was “exactly the right thing to do” and that he has no regrets.

“None whatsoever,” he said. “I was brought up to be respectful to others, particularly the president of the United States of America, and the idea that it’s wrong to support him and the stimulus that saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in Florida — it’s just odd to me. It’s obviously partisan and wrong.”