ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) _ Gov. Charlie Crist lamented Washington's hyper-partisan shift Friday, singling out his one-time top adviser and campaign "maestro,'' George LeMieux, the man whom Crist appointed to the U.S. Senate just a year ago.
Speaking to members of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, the independent Crist said he was disappointed by how he thought LeMieux has put the Republican Party in front of the people of Florida.
"What do I attribute it to?'' Crist asked reflexively. "The next primary. I don't know what else could account for it otherwise.''
The blunt yet cautious criticism is part of the new platform in Crist's campaign for the Senate seat LeMieux holds. On Friday, Crist affirmed his support for gay adoption in the state, said he liked some provisions in the federal health care bill but wanted to restore $500 million in proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage benefits, and remained a strong advocate for gun rights.
"Tax cuts? Hell yes,'' Crist said. "Government in your bedroom? Hell no.''
Crist, 54, is locked in a difficult three-way race against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Many expect LeMieux to challenge Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012.
Crist zeroed in on LeMieux's decision this week to join Republicans to prevent a vote against the DREAM Act, which would grant permanent residency to immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and who have completed some time in college or the military.
LeMieux opposed the measure because he said it circumvented the Senate committee process and failed to address the larger immigration issues. His spokesman, Ken Lundberg, did not respond to Crist's criticisms that LeMieux is too partisan.
During the hourlong editorial board interview, Crist joked that he saw the U.S. Chamber of Commerce TV ad calling him a flip-flopper on the health care bill eight times Friday morning.
The ad repeats two clips of Crist _ one from May when he said the country needed to "start over'' on health care reform, and one from August when he told an Orlando anchor he would have voted for the health care bill.
"Whatever your position on any issue, Charlie's your guy,'' a narrator in the chamber ad quips.
Crist said he misspoke during the Orlando interview.
"There's your confession,'' he said. "I'm a human being.''
Crist said he likes some provisions in the federal health care legislation and opposes others.
He supports the part of the bill that requires insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, as well as the measure that allows people under 26 to remain on their parents' health insurance plan.
But Crist is against putting a tax penalty on people who fail to get insurance, as well as cuts to benefits for people on Medicare Advantage.
In that way, his version of health reform can be boiled down to liking the ice cream, just without the calories. The measures Crist opposes are being used to help pay for the health care changes he supports.
Crist has not suggested an alternative funding source.
Crist drove himself to St. Petersburg from Tallahassee for the editorial board interview, a rarity for a sitting governor, stopping at a Walmart in Chiefland in the middle of the drive.
Nothing scheduled. No press advisory. Just a brief diversion to shake some hands and pass out some bumper stickers _ a “little retail politics,'' Crist said.
Over and over Friday, Crist emphasized his ability to work with Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate to achieve common-sense, pragmatic solutions.
He said his opponents Rubio and Meek will veer hard left or hard right if elected.
"They're sort of trapped by political bosses writing their talking points and having to speak from those talking points,'' Crist said. "For me, particularly as an independent, I have the ability to be straight on this stuff, to say there's good and bad. That doesn't mean you take a strong position, it means you're being honest.''
Crist also discussed the prospects of creating an informal, de facto third party in the Senate made up of moderates. He singled out Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Dick Lugar of Indiana.
"I think there are some very good genuine people still there, that, given a few more numbers of those that will be willing to utilize more common sense in Washington and be less partisan … we will help our country, and I'll help my Florida.''
Pictured: Sen. George LeMieux and Gov. Charlie Crist.