By August 2009, long before that meeting on the plane in Tallahassee, Fasano and other Republican kingmakers were convinced Crist would lose. It wasn't the poll numbers; there, Crist remained strong. Rather, Republicans had greeted the governor with ambivalence at the state GOP's annual dinner in Orlando. "When Charlie used to be in a roomful of Republicans, he was the rock star," Fasano says. "But that night, the applause he got was, well, polite, not rock star. I knew then there was a problem."

And then images of The Hug splashed across TV sets statewide. Rubio's onslaught was relentless. "You just don't get it," Rubio told Crist in a heated March debate. "This campaign is... about trust. And who do you trust to go to Washington and stand up to Barack Obama?"

The primary battle soon assumed national significance. Rubio, a conservative Cuban-American from Miami, came to represent the Tea Party's rise. Crist led the feckless establishment. Out-of-state contributions gushed into Rubio's coffers, nullifying the governor's fundraising advantage. Rubio netted $250,000 from Karl Rove's super PAC alone.

Crist played quarterback for the St. Pete High Green Devils.
Courtesy St. Petersburg High
Crist played quarterback for the St. Pete High Green Devils.
Crist stumped for Obama leading up to the 2012 election.
Photo by Terrence McCoy
Crist stumped for Obama leading up to the 2012 election.

Crist needed a game change. He began thinking of leaving the Republican Party, advisers said, while assuring everyone in his party and the media that he wouldn't.

In late April that year, the state capitol halls pulsed with gossip. Alex Villalobos, a lobbyist, friend of Crist's, and former legislator who had his own issues with the Republican Party, had just walked across the Senate floor. "Turncoat," one voice sounded. "Traitor," said another.

Villalobos grabbed a legislator. "What happened?" he asked.

"Haven't you heard?" came the answer. "Charlie's now an independent."

Villalobos climbed the steps to Crist's office. The rumors, the governor said, were true. He'd abandoned the party. But in that moment, Crist was strangely energized. His campaign for Senate was collapsing, but he didn't show it. The two men embraced, and Villalobos walked out knowing Crist was likely finished.

For all of his appeal and fame, on November 2 that year, Crist received only 30 percent of the vote. Rubio took half of the voters. And Democrat Kendrick Meek limped in with 20 percent. "Charlie learned then you can't win a statewide election as an independent," his father says.

But even in that failed bid lay seeds of something remarkable. Crist had discovered a new coalition of voters. Roughly 90 percent of conservatives rejected him, but he'd found support among half of the state's liberals. And he attracted more moderates than anyone else in the race. He'd accomplished this feat without party money or support.

The loss, though crushing, had positioned him for a comeback. But first he'd have to survive several years out of public office — years that would mark some of the strangest of his life.

"You're a piece of garbage!" a broad, wavy-haired New Yorker recalls bellowing at Crist and his wife. They were in Manhattan, weeks after the governor had left Tallahassee in 2011. Todd Rome, Carole Crist's ex-husband and a millionaire travel baron, remembers departing an Upper East Side bakery, clutching a box of cupcakes for his daughter's birthday, when he spotted them.

Rome, CEO of Blue Star Jets in New York, lost it. Carole, he explains, had moved to Florida, married Crist, and abandoned their teenage daughters, Jessica and Skylar. She hadn't returned any of their letters, texts, phone calls — nothing, he says. She simply dissolved into the Florida ether with Crist.

For a moment, in front of that cupcake shop on 57th Street, they all looked at each other, unsure. Then, Rome says, the couple immediately fled in separate directions. So Rome threw down his cupcakes and bolted after the former governor, yelling, "You have no balls! You're a lowlife! Why won't you stop and confront me?"

Crist, Rome says, evaded the confrontation by disappearing into a subway tunnel. "He's a piece of shit," says Rome, who has since remarried. "My kids were in the way of their lifestyle, and Charlie has never had a child, so he doesn't want them. He married a woman with two children and then walked away. A people person? He's a piece of shit."

(Carole Crist declined to be interviewed for this story, and no impartial source has criticized her parenting. Charlie Crist said, "I'm not going to comment about my wife's ex-husband.")

But outside of this unscripted encounter, Crist's life was coalescing around a grand return to the spotlight. It began immediately after his concession to Rubio. Crist emerged from the tony Vinoy Renaissance Resort in St. Petersburg seemingly unfazed. Reporters hounded him. Everyone wanted to know what he would do, but Crist was coy as usual. Mike Fasano said he thought Crist was finished. Several other attendants at that party said he'd form a political action committee to help moderate candidates. The Tampa Bay Times suggested he'd run for U.S. Congress. All, in fact, were wrong.

Three days after he left office, Crist enlisted with the mega-personal-injury law firm, Morgan & Morgan. Managing partner John Morgan was optimistic. "He is going to try cases," Morgan said in 2011. "I think he'd do pretty good in front of a jury in Florida."

These days, however, Morgan doesn't emphasize the ex-governor's courtroom acumen. "Charlie Crist is not a minder or a grinder," says Morgan, a prolific Democratic Party fundraiser. "He's a finder. He makes friends. If you go to a ballgame with him, he'll distribute 200 business cards. What he likes, he does. He meets clients."

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