TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It sounds like something Republican Gov. Rick Scott would ask of Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist: "How can the people of Florida trust your recent conversion?"
But the words were Crist's, and the question was asked to Tom Gallagher during the 2006 Republican primary for governor. Crist easily won that race in large part because he accused Gallagher of shifting his politics just to win the election.
"Talking about being a conservative after a political lifetime of liberalism just isn't believable," Crist said of Gallagher.
Now Crist is the leading Democratic candidate for governor and is facing the same accusations — in reverse — from Florida Republicans and his Democratic primary opponent, Nan Rich. They say Crist can't be trusted because of his political conversion from Republican to independent to Democrat.
"Charlie Crist is like Florida's weather. If you don't like his positions now, wait a little while and he'll change them," former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush said in an email. "The man is organized purely around his own personal ambition. Nothing he says can be believed."
Crist's reputation for being a say-anything-for-a-vote politician isn't new. Gallagher accused him of it, as did Marco Rubio when he chased Crist from the 2010 Republican Senate primary. Now Scott has joined in.
"It's hard to believe that someone can go from a Ronald Reagan Republican to a Barack Obama liberal in a short period of time. It's pretty dramatic," Scott said in a phone interview.
Crist insists he hasn't changed, saying he was a moderate as a Republican and still is.
"What changed in the interim is my party's leadership," Crist said, adding he "can't stomach" the intolerant views of his former party. "I always kind of felt, particularly on social issues, I was a round peg in a square hole."
There's no doubt Crist was a moderate when he was elected governor. He supported embryonic stem cell research and gay civil unions. Once elected, he made peace with the state teachers union, which Bush fought, pushed for clean energy to fight climate change, cozied up to Democratic leaders and vetoed an abortion bill that was a GOP priority.
But when he found Rubio beating him in the 2010 primary, he insisted no one was more conservative than he. Asked how that squared with his recent claim of lifelong moderation, Crist said, "I don't know and I don't care ... What I care about is Florida."
Some of Crist's changing positions include:
— Cuba: Crist criticized 2006 Democratic gubernatorial opponent Jim Davis for visiting Cuba on a congressional fact-finding trip, saying, "I know when it's time to visit Havana, and it's when it's free." As an independent Senate candidate in 2010, Crist supported allowing Cuban-Americans' unrestricted travel to visit relatives in Cuba. This year, Crist said the U.S. should scrap its 52-year-old trade and travel embargo and announced plans for his own fact-finding trip.
— President Barack Obama's health care overhaul: As a Republican Senate candidate in 2009, Crist said Obama's plan was "cockamamie" and "nuts" and demanded its repeal; as a 2010 independent Senate candidate, Crist said there were positive things about the law and it should be fixed, not repealed; as a 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, he says it's "great."
— Obama's $787 billion federal stimulus package: In 2009, Crist asked Florida's congressional delegation to support the stimulus and appeared with Obama at a rally pushing for its passage. Later that year he ran a radio ad criticizing Obama for the plan and told CNN "I didn't endorse it." He is now defending his support of the plan, saying it saved jobs.
— Crist opposed oil drilling off Florida's coasts when he ran for governor in 2006. In 2008 he said he was open to the idea after Republican presidential nominee John McCain called for more offshore drilling — Crist hoped to be his vice presidential pick. Crist changed his mind again after the 2010 BP oil spill.
Of course, Scott has his own flip-flops. After campaigning as a hard-liner on illegal immigration, Scott signed bills this year allowing the state Supreme Court to grant law licenses and instate tuition to some Florida residents living in the United States illegally.
And last year Scott stunned many when he supported expanding Medicaid under Obama's health care overhaul. Before he got into politics, the former hospital-chain founder spent millions of his own money to fight the overhaul. The Republican-dominated Legislature rejected the Medicaid expansion.
A recent poll showed that most Floridians don't trust Crist or Scott.
Rich hopes it is an issue in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary, where she badly trails Crist in fundraising and name recognition.
"It's a trust factor when you change all of your positions 180 degrees. It's not believable to people," said Rich, the former state Senate Democratic leader. "When you're saying you're one thing, and then you're doing something else, who's to say you're not going to change back the other way once you're elected?"
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