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."
Austin said Sunday, "I'm very disappointed with what he's doing – I think it's ridiculous."
"I don't think it had anything to do with (the convention)," Austin added, although he acknowledged it would draw attention. "Why do it when all these Republicans are here and are going to be so upset with it?"
Crist had no comment on rumors that his current employer, politically active personal injury lawyer John Morgan of the Morgan & Morgan law firm, is pushing him for the 2014 governor's race.
Asked whether the Obama endorsement reflects his own possible political future, Crist said, "No, what it means is that I care about my state and I care about our country."
He denied he timed his announcement to draw more news coverage or to toss cold water on the convention. Asked why he did it Sunday, he said, "This one's as good as any other," and "I don't know if it will or it won't" get more attention.
He said Obama "really proved himself to me" with his economic stimulus program, his response to the BP oil spill, his attempt to provide Florida with a high-speed rail grant and his education reform program, Race to the Top, from which Florida benefitted.
In response to suggestions he may work with the Obama campaign, perhaps even speaking at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, Crist said he's had "very little" contact with the Obama campaign and isn't sure whether he'll be involved.
He said the country needs "leadership willing to work across the aisle for the benefit of all Americans. Words like 'compromise' and 'cooperation' are almost demonized by some Republicans and I think that's unhealthy."
Crist denied GOP suggestions that he has drastically changed his position on issues including same-sex marriage and abortion, saying he still holds the same conservative positions on those issues as in the past, but "I believe in live and let live and not imposing my values on others."
Latvala, acknowledging he is often called a moderate by other Republicans, said Crist as a state senator was "well to my right early in my career" and has clearly changed his political philosophy.
"If he'd been a moderate like me for 20 years, that's one thing, but he's been all over the board. It makes me think it's opportunism."
The Obama campaign issued a news release that simply reprinted Crist's written endorsement of Obama but contained no other reaction. No campaign spokesman would provide an on-the-record comment.
"Charlie Crist sent a powerful message to his former party today," said a statement from Florida Democratic Party director, adding, "the GOP has left him and thousands of independent minded Floridians like him, in pursuit of an extreme agenda driven by controversial social issues and backward looking policies."
Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Young said later the endorsement "reminds Floridians of how far President Obama has moved this state and our nation forward … from the worse recession since the Great Depression."
"Charlie Crist sent a powerful message to his former party today," said a statement from Florida Democratic Party Director Scott Arceneaux, adding, "the GOP has left him and thousands of independent minded Floridians like him, in pursuit of an extreme agenda driven by controversial social issues and backward looking policies."