Friends and foes gather to meet Charlie Crist at book-signing in St. Petersburg

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  • Real men wear pink: Charlie Crist signs copies of his new memoir to Bob & Carrie Henriquez

Haslam's bookstore in St. Petersburg's Grand Central District was buzzing on Saturday afternoon with the appearance of native son Charlie Crist for a book-signing event.

Of course, this wasn't just any author taking a turn to promote his new work. Crist is the former Republican governor of Florida who is attempting something perhaps unprecedented in political annals - running for his former job, but this time as a Democrat as he attempts to oust incumbent Rick Scott from office in November. Which is why the rollout for The Party's Over is nicely timed in giving him maximum publicity up and down the Sunshine State as Floridians slowly begin to contemplate the 2014 race.

While The Party's Over lays down the predicate for his political conversion, it must be said that there were plenty of people at Haslam's who weren't buying it. Though there were certainly many supporters (some who go back decades) of the onetime governor eager to give him some love, there were also plenty of critics present, including Senator Jack Latvala, representing the Republican Party of Florida.

"If he wants to get elected he needs to pay attention - because I don’t think he was paying attention last time," Latvala told reporters moments before Crist arrived at the bookstore, saying that the rap on the former governor when he served in Tallahassee was that he wasn't really all into his job.

The Republican Party of Florida has seized on Crist's uneven record as governor during his one and only term in office (2007-2011), which happened to take place during the worst recession in the U.S. since the Great Depression 80 years earlier. The narrative they're pushing is that when Florida was in dire need of leadership in 2010, Crist bailed out of his responsibilities in shepherding the fourth biggest state in the nation for his own ambitions, which led to his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate.

  • Jack Latvala

The premise of The Party's Over is essentially that Crist didn't ditch the GOP, but that the GOP left him. Certainly elements in the RPOF never forgave him for literally embracing President Obama when he campaigned for the stimulus plan early in 2009, but Latvala said the answer wasn't to leave the party and ultimately become a Democrat.

"You don’t go from being the more conservative member of the (state) Senate to endorsing the most liberal Democrat President in our lifetime, if you had any core beliefs at all," said Latvala, who served with Crist in the Legislature back in the 1990's. "That’s my problem. Yeah, I don’t like everything the Republican party does, but I've chosen to stay and try to change it."

Crist arrived about 15 minutes past his scheduled 12 p.m. appearance at Haslem's, where he was accompanied by an entourage that included his wife Carol Rome as well as Pinellas Democratic state legislators Dwight Dudley and Carl Zimmerman. Other politicians spotted in the bookstore included Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, St. Petersburg City Councilman Wengay Newton and Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez.

During the middle of his session signing books, the former governor took a quick break to entertain questions from hovering reporters.

"It's great to be in the people's party. I've never felt more at home politically than I do right now," he said about his conversion to becoming a Democrat, which officially took place in December of 2012, months after he gave a speech celebrating Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Crist told reporters that he has no idea how many copies of The Party's Over have sold since it was published back on February 4. When asked if his stance on gun control and the Second Amendment put him outside the mainstream of his new political party he disagreed, saying that he believes in more stringent background checks and banning high capacity magazines.

Among the first people in Haslam's awaiting an autographed copy was Susie Babcock, who has known Crist since he was a child. "He grew up with my children and so we love him and that's why were here," she said. But she couldn't confirm that he had her vote in November. "I'm really, really conservative. I think he's fair. I don't agree with him on some things, I agree with him on other things, so I have to decide which outweighs the other."

Less ambiguous in his support for Crist was Tampa resident Blaine Stein, who has only recently returned to Florida from North Carolina. Coming from a family of educators, Stein said that Crist has always backed public school teachers, a key factor for him in his decision making.

St. Petersburg resident Bill Johnson was another Democrat who will be voting for Crist this fall, saying he's always been a centrist, middle-of-the road legislator, "which is where most of us (voters) are."

But there were plenty of critics present, about a dozen or so who lined up outside of Haslem's on Central Avenue with signs questioning Crist's credibility.

Clearwater resident Justin Homberg said flatly "You can't trust him," and asked Democrats to think long and hard if they wanted the former tough-on-crime Republican if they could as well. "Do they think in four years he's going to remain a Democrat?"

Regarding the fact that polls consistently have shown Crist to be defeating Scott, Homberg attributes that to Crist's skills as a politician, but says Scott will close the gap when November rolls around. "When it comes down to numbers - jobs - people will remember what it was like under Crist and what it's like under Rick Scott."

Crist said the book tour will continue, though he wasn't sure where that will take place. You can bet wherever it is, the RPOF won't be far behind.

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