Is Charlie Crist plotting a political comeback?

Coziness with Democrats stirs rumors

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- When former Gov. Charlie Crist left the Republican Party, it was pretty clear there was no turning back.

Not only did the party establishment kick Crist on his way out the door, they keep kicking him over and over again any chance they get. But Crist, who lost his independent bid for Senate last year, is finding friends in the Democratic Party.

Since leaving office in January and taking a job at a personal injury law firm, Crist has done events with a number of prominent Democrats, including Alex Sink, who was her party's nominee to replace Crist; former Sen. Bob Graham, who has also served as governor; and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. He's donated money to Democrat Patrick Murphy, who hopes to challenge Republican Congressman Allen West, a South Florida freshman who is a national tea party favorite. And on top of all that, his wife, Carole, recently registered as a Democrat.

It's led to speculation that Crist will seek to return to public office with the only party that will welcome him - Democrats.

"Why would he do events with some folks who are trying to chop his knees?" said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from Crist's hometown of St. Petersburg. "He would rather be with some folks who are accepting, tolerant and happy about you being around."

Rouson has heard the open speculation about whether Crist will register as a Democrat to continue his political career, but says he has deliberately not talked to the former governor about it, saying they have been personal friends for years and he doesn't want to put pressure on the governor, nor have to endure the questions from others trying to glean information about Crist's future.

Crist, 55, acknowledges that he has been courted by Democrats.

"That's always kind," Crist said, but adding he plans to remain without a party for a while and has no plans to run for office again. "I'm enjoying the private sector so much. The freedom that it provides is so nice."

He said, though, that his wife is now more comfortable in the Democratic Party - and considering what Republicans say about her husband, it's probably not a surprise. When her party change was reported by The Associated Press last week, it was a hot topic among Florida political insiders on Twitter, many of whom speculated Crist would eventually join her.

"Is anyone surprised? Guess who is next?" tweeted John Stemberger, a social conservative who helped Crist's opponent in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.

"One step at a time," tweeted Kevin Cate, who previously worked for Sink and now runs a public relations firm.

And just because he has no immediate plans to run, it doesn't mean that won't change. State Rep. Luis Garcia of Miami Beach, a former Florida Democratic Party vice chair who is running for Congress, said he called Crist about the speculation.

"He told me he was happy doing what he was doing, but of course, that doesn't mean a thing," Garcia said. "Right now Charlie Crist is persona non grata in the Republican Party and I would be happy to have him as a Democrat."

Republicans fully expect Crist to join the other side and run for governor.

"If I was in Las Vegas and someone gave me a $300 chip on whether he was going to do it or not, I would say he is," said Tony DiMatteo, a state Republican Party executive committee member from Pinellas County. "He's a political animal - that's just his arena - and that's his opportunity to get back into it. He has to do it as a Democrat."

And if he does, state Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said he won't succeed. He said Crist has exposed himself to voters as a political opportunist last year.

"Voters don't like chameleons," Curry said. "If he decides to run (as a Democrat) in the future, they're going to see right through it."

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Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bsfarrington

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