After leaving Republican Party, Gov. Charlie Crist busies himself with official duties in Fla.

By Brendan Farrington, AP
Saturday, May 1, 2010

After split from GOP, Crist busy with Fla. duties

MIAMI — Fresh from leaving the Republican Party, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Saturday busied himself with official duties in the public eye as he and his former GOP primary rival adjusted to his new role as an independent in the U.S. Senate race.

Crist, whose next campaign event is a fundraiser Sunday in Miami Beach, started the day in South Florida, meeting with Amtrak officials who want to restore rail service from Miami to Jacksonville on the East Coast Railway. He toured an inspection train that is testing the rail line and said he would do whatever he could to make the idea a reality.

“If we can go to the moon, we can certainly go to Jacksonville,” Crist said.

Several people at the event encouraged Crist’s independent run for Senate, which he announced on Thursday in his hometown of St. Petersburg. One man told Crist: “I’m 100 percent behind you and I’m a staunch Democrat. How’s that sound?”

“That sounds great,” Crist replied.

Crist, once the heavy favorite in the race, left the Republican primary after badly trailing conservative darling Marco Rubio, Florida’s former state House speaker. Rubio had no scheduled events this weekend, but was slated to appear on “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The Democratic front-runner is U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, but billionaire real estate magnate Jeff Greene has also entered that primary.

Crist on Saturday flew to Pensacola to be briefed on the massive Gulf Coast oil spill. He took a commercial flight and introduced himself as “Charlie” to the other travelers on an airport shuttle bus.

Before the plane took off from Miami, Crist returned phone messages to supporters.

“I’m doing a great, I’m doing great. You’re coming tomorrow, of course,” Crist told a supporter, referring to Sunday’s fundraiser at a Miami Beach hotel. “I want you to come. God bless you. Thank you so much.”

The fundraiser, which legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula was expected to attend, is Crist’s first as an independent candidate.

In Pensacola, officials from the U.S Coast Guard, oil company BP PLC and Crist’s environmental secretary briefed Crist on the oil spill and its threat to Florida’s coastlines.

“I think we’re going to see oil — I wish we weren’t, but I think we’re going to see it. So the best thing is to be as prepared as we possibly can,” Crist told reporters afterward.

After weeks of being peppered by questions about the Senate race, Crist got through both events with little discussion of his high-profile split from the party that helped bring him to power. He was able to keep the discussion mostly on trains and oil.

Crist faces a tough road as an independent candidate: He has burned bridges with Republicans, and Democrats see his departure from the GOP as an opportunity. Crist, though, said he plans to reach out to Democrats to support his campaign.

In Miami, he was asked about the harsh criticism he’s received from the Republican establishment since his announcement.

“I pretty much expected that … some in the party are shackled,” Crist said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s just all about the people and we’re able to go to them and not have those ties.”

will not be displayed