Byline: DAVID HUNT
For the moment, Gov. Charlie Crist's bumpy political road went smooth.
Nobody said anything about the dreaded "man hug" with President Barack Obama, the one that happened a year ago showing a support of the stimulus plan that doomed Crist with hordes of conservatives. There was little chatter about his declining popularity or how even his political mentor, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, had just quit his campaign.
Double-digit unemployment and the economy? Nobody showed up to complain about those issues either.
What formed outside of an auditorium on the Florida State College at Jacksonville South Campus on Saturday was a collective show of thanks from teachers and parents. They cheered as he stepped out of his SUV to host a campaign rally for his U.S. Senate run.
Crist's veto of a controversial and heavily partisan teacher pay bill on Thursday has pumped a new energy into his beleaguered campaign that many political analysts do not yet fully understand. While Crist has made new fans, he's done it in a way that's further boiled many Republicans' disappointment in him.
Some of those new fans - many of the teachers are registered Democrats - won't be able to help him win the Republican primary because they are barred from voting in it. That's helped fuel the speculation that Crist may register to run as an independent by the April 30 deadline.
It's not a given that vetoing a bill will translate into votes or shift the momentum of a Republican primary where Crist was, as of Saturday, a more than 20-percentage-point underdog. And it may not reverse the damage the far-right wing of the party has inflicted on Crist as former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio has continued to capture conservatives' support in recent months.
"We're in uncharted territory. You can make experts stutter all day long with this one," said Jim Minion, executive director of Florida Prospers, a political action committee that seeks to remove partisanship from public policy debate.
Minion struggled to find a comparison. Mario Piscatella, a St. Johns County-based political consultant who specializes in federal campaigns, said the closest ray of optimism he could offer Crist harkens back to the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton went on to secure a second term after being bashed over health care reform and was fighting accusations of infidelity.
For Crist, the situation is far more complicated. It wasn't quite a year ago that his popularity ratings as governor and senate candidate were soaring. Times changed. Credit the economy. Credit the tea party. Nobody's been able to say for sure what tossed Crist's political future into limbo.
"We used to call him 'Teflon Charlie.' Clearly the Teflon wore off but he still has something in there," Piscatella said.
Whatever that something is, people have a renewed curiosity in the Crist for Senate campaign.
"Charlie Crist listened to us. I'm going to listen to him," said John Meeks, a teacher who was among about 100 people who attended Saturday's rally.
Most everyone waited at the door to greet him. Sixteen people, all Democrats and third-party voters, signed GOP switch cards at the event, meaning they've gone Republican so that they can vote for Crist in the Aug. 24 Republican primary.
"Anybody who has a conscience- whether they're Republican or Democrat - needs to support what's best for the state," said Susan Beauchamp, a school counselor.
School Board member Vicki Drake said she still hadn't made up her mind about Crist as a senator, but she thinks the veto will net Crist some votes.
"He went out on a limb to do this," she said. "It is important to listen to the voters."
Dave Baldwin, who has a son at Pine Forest Elementary School, was critical of Crist, saying he thinks the governor changes his mind too often. …