Every time I say something about politicians, Charlie Crist corrects me.

“Public servant. Please,” the former governor of Florida says, gently but firmly, a grave look in his big, long-lashed eyes. His eyebrows are raised, his tanned forehead furrowed. “Politician is such a derogatory.”

Crist is sitting across a flimsy table at a sandwich shop in the tony Miami suburb of Coral Gables. He has just flown in from Key West on a plane belonging to Steve Mostyn, a Texas-based trial lawyer and Democratic mega-donor. Crist’s shiny white hair is gel-combed into perfect rows. He is wearing tan seersucker pants with a belt embroidered with little palm trees and a short-sleeved cotton shirt with an electric-blue collar and narrow orange-and-white horizontal stripes. He has brought me a copy of his new book, inside which he has written, “Great to have you in Florida!!” The dots on the exclamation points form the eyes of a smiley face.

Over the past six years, the 57-year-old Crist has followed perhaps the most unusual trajectory of any American politician. As a popular Republican governor with an independent streak, he was vetted for his party’s 2008 vice-presidential nomination; by the spring of 2010, he was dropping out of a U.S. Senate primary and the Republican Party, one of the then-ascendant Tea Party’s proudest scalps. He ran as an independent in the general election but lost to the brash young state legislator who had pushed him out of the primary, Marco Rubio.

It did not take Crist long to begin refashioning a political identity. Rubio and the rest of his Republican foes had long accused him of being too liberal, too friendly to the Democratic president; they said he wasn’t fit to call himself a Republican. And so, in 2012, Crist took their advice. He endorsed President Obama for reelection, spoke at the Democratic convention, and stumped across Florida for him. After four days of counting, Obama was named the winner of Florida by the narrowest margin—less than a percentage point—of any state.

In December 2012, at the White House, Crist became a Democrat.

In November 2013, in his hometown, St. Petersburg, Crist launched his Democratic campaign against Rick Scott, the current Republican governor.

The chutzpah of it! Florida Republicans, who thought they’d permanently excommunicated him from politics, still can’t quite believe this is happening. To them Crist is a joke, a con artist, a pathetic phony still lusting for approbation long past his sell-by date. A thousand Republican knives are out for him, the people he betrayed (or did they betray him first?) lining up to get their revenge: the Tea Party people, the Rubio people, the Jeb Bush people, the well-funded Republican Party of Florida machine Crist once commanded. The Scott campaign is said to be prepared to spend $100 million to defeat Crist. And yet despite it all, and despite a campaign that could generously be described as bare-bones, Crist leads in the polls. Democrats, desperate to take the Tallahassee governor’s mansion after two decades’ shutout, have embraced him. He could do it. He could win.

His bid, if Crist is to be believed, is about more than a politician hoping for a comeback. It is nothing less than a referendum on the politics of the moment.

An October 2013 ad for Crist’s current gubernatorial campaign

In recent weeks, Crist’s campaign has dovetailed with the book tour for his new political memoir, The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat. Like any campaign book, it is intermittently disingenuous, self-glorifying, and selective in its omissions and inclusions. But its underlying theme is difficult to dispute: that the Republican Party has been thrown into chaos by the right wing’s purifying zeal, and has often presented an unappealing face to the wider public as a result. If the unhinging of the GOP—the way the party of genteel stand-pattery came to be dominated by angry obstructionism—has been the dominant drama of American politics in recent years, no one has lived it more than Charlie Crist. He is martyr and mascot of the great Republican crack-up.

But what does Charlie Crist actually stand for? “Some use the word opportunist,” he tells me. (Crist is one of those politicians who will tell you all the terrible things people say about him.) “Yeah, this is a delightful opportunity, to run into a $100 million buzz saw face-first. That’s a joyous thought, right?”

What he stands for, he says, is “fairness and trying to treat people right.” He thinks now that he never should have been a Republican, the sort of blithe declaration that makes Florida Republicans choke on their food. But it’s true that Crist’s actions annoyed plenty of Republicans even when he was one of them. As a state senator in the 1990s, education commissioner in the Jeb Bush gubernatorial administration, state attorney general, and governor beginning in 2007, Crist enjoyed bucking his party. He blocked abortion restrictions, restored felons’ voting rights, sided with teachers unions and trial lawyers. He took aggressive action on the environment, including spending more than $1 billion in taxpayer money to buy back tens of thousands of acres of the Everglades from a sugar plantation and turn them into a preserve. Other than the party label, Crist says, “None of this is new. I haven’t really changed.”

Yet it takes only a casual perusal of the public record to find that plenty has changed. After voting for Florida’s gay-marriage ban in 2008, last year he announced his support for marriage equality. As a gubernatorial candidate in 2006, he once told a Catholic priest he would sign a restrictive ban on abortion; just hours later, he told reporters he didn’t think that was government’s role. Crist wears as a badge of courage his February 2009 appearance with Obama in support of the stimulus bill; he rarely mentions that a few months later he pretended not to know that the president would be appearing in the state. A few weeks ago, after years of supporting the Cuba embargo, he suddenly declared himself against it—conveniently, according to recent polling: Floridians are now mostly against the embargo, too.

Crist seems to have a nearly pathological need to tell people what they want to hear, and he is not very artful about covering his tracks. On the embargo, Crist tells me, a half-century of stasis proves it hasn’t been an effective policy and it’s time to try another approach. More generally, he says, “Yeah, well, you know what, if the president is allowed to have a new position now and again, can’t I? Isn’t it okay? Would you rather have your leaders be open-minded or head-in-the-sand?”

I ask Crist why anyone should trust him given his record of changing his mind. “Judge me by my deeds,” he says. “Who vetoed the ultrasound bill? Who vetoed the bill that would have been hard on teachers? I did. As a Republican. Who stood up for the Everglades? You know what you’re going to get if you vote for me.”

Under the media’s watchful gaze, Crist officially switches his party affiliation to Democrat at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office in December 2012. (Reuters)

Some politicians are ideologues. Others are policy wonks. Crist is neither of these; he is an empath. He is elaborately, embarrassingly solicitous of everyone he meets: the waiter, the billionaire, the activist, the security guard, the local television reporter who thanks him for his time only to have him respond, “Oh, no, no, my pleasure! Thank you for taking your time!” He is especially good with old people, a valuable skill in Florida politics: kissing the old ladies, sympathizing with tales of hearing aids and detached retinas and heart surgeries. His handlers, to the extent he has them, spend an inordinate portion of their time trying and failing to extract Crist from restaurants, 7-Elevens, and street corners, where he just cannot stop meeting people and asking them questions. The owner of the sandwich shop where I’m interviewing Crist, a pepper-haired Frenchman, comes by to see if we need anything. “This is Pete!” Crist says. “Pete, this is Molly!” I see you’ve been here before, I say. “First time!” Crist says. “Now we’re friends.”

To Crist’s detractors, this exhausting, maniacal personability is a sign of a fundamental shallowness—a needy personality with nothing underneath. Crist’s allies insist it is a genuine human interest that is too rare in politics. “It irritates me when people say, ‘Oh, Charlie doesn’t have core beliefs,’” Crist’s friend Steve Geller, a Democratic former state senate leader, tells me later. “His core belief is that the voters are his boss. Most people say that, but they don’t mean it. He does.” At first, this seemed to me to be a hilarious unwitting admission, defending Crist against the charge of lacking an ideology by arguing that his ideology is whatever people want it to be.

But maybe the reason people respond to Crist is that this quality is what people crave—and are not getting—from their leaders nowadays. A record number of voters call themselves neither Republican nor Democrat, and you cannot turn on cable news without hearing “partisan gridlock” bemoaned. A vast, unlistened-to swath of the electorate is burned out on ideology, tired of the passionate but unbending followers of rigid creeds, sick of politicians who say over and over that they “care about the issues” but don’t seem to care about them. To these voters, politics has become a game of litmus tests and talking points and constant, pointless argument, when all they really want is someone who feels their pain, who makes them feel safe, who listens and promises to help.

I ask Crist what he thinks the people of Florida know about him. “Well, I hope it’s that Charlie’s a good guy, and that he cares about us, and he’ll try to do what’s right,” he says. “He may make mistakes, but he’s trying. He’s got our back. Because I do—really. I love them. I feel for them. I do.”

This declaration of fellow-feeling seems a remarkably naked encapsulation of Crist’s touchy-feely philosophy. In the cynical world of politics, believing this makes you basically an idiot. The voters of Florida may feel differently.

“He goes up to the podium, we embrace, and that’s it for me as a Republican,” says Crist, describing the hug that was used against him during the 2010 Senate campaign. (AP Photo)

In 2010, at the high point of the Obama backlash that drove the Tea Party and swept Republicans into office up and down the ballot, Rick Scott barely defeated Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, 49 percent to 48 percent, to become governor.

The fight to succeed Crist was an ugly, expensive battle between two little-loved candidates. Scott, a multimillionaire former hospital executive, was best known for the $1.7 billion fine his former company, Columbia/HCA, had paid to the Justice Department to settle charges of Medicare and Medicaid fraud during his tenure in the late 1990s—at the time, the largest healthcare-fraud case in history. Scott’s campaign spent $85 million on the race, including $73 million of Scott’s personal fortune; Sink’s spent $18 million. (This week, Sink lost again, this time as the Democratic nominee for a vacant congressional seat in a special election.) Skull-faced and terminally awkward, Scott has been nicknamed Voldemort by his detractors.

At the New Birth Baptist Church, an African-American megachurch in a part of town marked by barred windows and Caribbean restaurants, Crist is meeting with Bishop Victor T. Curry, a major power broker in the black community, who is telling him how to avoid Sink’s mistakes. In particular, Curry believes Sink’s poor outreach to the black community helped doom her campaign. So absent was she that Curry’s assistant once gave him a message reading, “Alex Sink called, he wants to speak with you.” Sink turned down invitations to speak to Curry’s congregation and to go on his radio show. Curry’s pitch is self-serving: Among other things, he wants Crist’s campaign to advertise on the gospel radio station he owns, which is struggling to stay afloat financially.

“We’re going to do that,” Crist says. “A lot.”

“Don’t take us for granted,” Curry says. “I want to vote for you. I don’t just want to vote against Rick Scott.” Crist’s liberalizations of the voting process, from expanding early voting to re-enfranchising felons, give him credibility with Curry, who has led the charge for voting reforms.

On the way to the sanctuary—a vast, purple-draped space that seats 2,000—Crist encounters a wiry black man with a big gray beard and missing teeth. With his baseball cap and short-sleeved orange shirt with his name stitched on the breast, he looks like a janitor. Crist places a hand on his shoulder and asks, “What do you do here? Tell me.” It turns out the man, Johnnie Bell, is pastor of the church’s family-life ministry.

Bell’s lean frame is twisted and sloped to one side; one arm is withered and ends in a clenched hand in a fabric brace. Some people might be too polite to mention it. “What happened to your hand?” Crist asks.

“I was shot with a .45 through my neck in 1970,” Bell says. “I was paralyzed—couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, couldn’t think. But God is good.”

“All the time,” Crist says.

He keeps asking questions: How did it happen? Soon Bell is showing him the points on his neck where the bullet went in and out, telling Crist about the inspirational book he wrote about his life. It occurs to me that Crist would make an excellent reporter.

“You got a book? I got a book!” Crist says to Bell. “What’s your book?” It is called The Blessed Bullet Covered by the Blood. By the time we leave, Bell will have fetched a copy and signed it in red ink: “To Governor Charlie Crist. God made you the best.”

Crist’s eyes gleam as he strides down the hall. “Wow! Didn’t know that was going to come out,” he murmurs to me. “But you never know until you listen.”

It’s cheesy, and yet for days afterward, I find myself feeling more attentive, more curious, slower to anger, more attuned to people’s capacity to surprise. I feel bolder and less embarrassable. Crist makes people feel good. It’s what he does.

Crist greets members of the clergy at a November 2013 rally announcing his candidacy. (Reuters)

Crist is barely running a campaign in the conventional sense. His friend Dan Gelber, a trial lawyer and Democratic former state senator, drives him around Miami in his black Honda Odyssey minivan. (Gelber, bespectacled, balding, and sarcastic, occasionally launches into paeans to the virtues of the Honda Odyssey, which he considers the best minivan ever made.) A loose constellation of political professionals orbits Crist, but they appear to have minimal say in what is very much The Charlie Show. At book signings, Crist’s newish deputy campaign manager, Jessica Clark, a former Obama finance official who is also his fundraising director, supervises. Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, is an adviser. “I have no day-to-day, tactical role,” Messina tells me from D.C. “I'm just trying to be helpful.”

In November, Crist hired Bill Hyers, a hotshot Democratic guru who’d just gotten Bill de Blasio elected mayor of New York, to manage his campaign, but the relationship fell apart before Hyers could move from New York to Florida. (When I ask about Hyers, Crist says he didn’t want to leave New York because he “fell in love.” Hyers, in an email, did not disagree with this.) A few weeks ago, Crist replaced him with Omar Khan, a well-liked Floridian who worked in the political department of both Obama campaigns and has never managed a statewide race.

Granted, the election is eight months away. But in an age when most politicians are scripted, choreographed, and consultant-driven, Crist is notably his own master. This gives his campaign a high-wire-act feel, and makes some Florida Democrats acutely nervous. One Democratic operative, while acknowledging Crist’s lack of a campaign infrastructure, compared the situation to the Miami Heat’s acquisition of LeBron James: “You don’t build a conventional team around LeBron.”

Crist is a prodigious fundraiser. Since beginning his campaign, he has raised more than $6 million, the most in that time period of any Democrat in Florida history. He does not seem to mind asking his friends for money, and he has a lot of friends. At lunch in South Beach, at the famous Joe’s Stone Crab, Crist is joined by Joe Falk, a subprime-mortgage zillionaire, Obama bundler, and gay activist; Fedrick Ingram, president of the Miami-Dade teachers union; and Tom Sullivan, CEO of the flooring company Lumber Liquidators. Sullivan has brought his curly-haired four-year-old daughter, who sits at the end of the table. Gelber is there, and Mike Burns, Crist’s longtime body man, a small, leathery Pensacolan with a Southern accent who has worked for Crist since his attorney-general days.

This is clearly a power lunch of some sort, but no business is obviously transacted, just a bunch of very important friends hanging out. Crist doesn’t hold court, and he frequently isn’t even the center of attention. He passes on the bread basket—“eat bread, look like bread,” he mutters; he orders the bisque and never touches it. When I mention later that he never seems to eat, his face lights up in agreement. “I don’t!” he replies. “One meal a day! Just dinner!” He does, however, ingest lots of caffeine—preferably Diet Red Bull; coffee or Diet Coke in a pinch. He introduces us to our waiter, reminisces with the owner of the restaurant, clasps the hand of the busboy. “I'm going to give you something to remember me,” he says, handing the man a card. “I want you to go online and give me a dollar. I'm running against—well, you know. I'll have your back.”

Crist discovered his talent for politics early, when he canvassed for his father’s campaign for school board as a 9-year-old. His parents, a doctor and a housewife who moved from Pennsylvania to Florida when he was 3, were Republicans, so he was a Republican. (Crist’s immigrant grandfather, a Greek from Cyprus, shortened the last name from Christodolou; Crist is also a quarter Lebanese and, on his mother’s side, half Scots-Irish.) The Republican Party was the party of nice, popular white guys with good manners whose fathers were doctors. The party of washout college quarterbacks who got elected student-body vice-president, scraped through a third-tier law school, and passed the bar on their third try. The party of seersucker slacks and tasseled loafers.  It was the other party that was the home of the shouty rebels who wanted to take things away from people.

Republican bonding: Crist, newly elected as Florida’s education commissioner, shares a jovial moment with then-Governor Jeb Bush and insurance commissioner Tom Gallagher in January 2000. (AP Photo)

In January 2008, the governor of Florida’s endorsement was seen as pivotal in the hotly contested Republican presidential race. Three days before the Florida primary, Crist came out in favor of his friend John McCain. The gesture infuriated the other candidates. Rudy Giuliani believed he had been promised Crist’s support, while Mitt Romney believed he had been promised that Crist would make no endorsement. In the recently released documentary Mitt, Romney can be seen slumping in his chair when he gets the news of Crist’s McCain endorsement. Six years later, the wound is still raw. Asked about Crist, Romney told a radio host in January, “There are some people that you can’t trust.”

McCain won the Florida primary and the nomination, and by summer, Crist was filling out vice-presidential vetting questionnaires and hobnobbing at McCain’s ranch with fellow GOP prospects Romney and Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana. Less than an hour before Sarah Palin’s selection was announced, McCain called to tell Crist he’d “decided to go in another direction.”

On the eve of the 2008 election, as lines stretched for early voting, Crist overruled his own lawyers to issue an executive order expanding voting hours. Obama won Florida by three points. At a meeting of Republican governors in Miami a couple weeks later, Crist gave a speech calling on the party to “listen to the voters and embrace inclusiveness and bipartisanship. For the most part, the GOP made a different decision—not to give an inch. Crist was alone among Republican governors in welcoming the millions earmarked for Florida in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill. He greeted the president in Fort Myers, on the southern Gulf Coast, with a laudatory introduction and a warm embrace.

Had he stayed governor, Crist almost certainly would have been easily reelected in 2010. But he was running for U.S. Senate, against Rubio, who positioned himself to Crist’s right (not difficult to do) and caught the Tea Party wave. Rubio’s campaign put the image of Crist hugging Obama in commercials, on fliers, even on the envelopes of his fundraising letters. “He goes up to the podium, we embrace, and that’s it for me as a Republican,” Crist recalls. “My friend Marco used that hug to great political gain.”

Crist scrambled awkwardly to rebrand himself a conservative, but soon he was down 20 points in the Republican primary polls. He dropped out—shortly after swearing he’d never leave the GOP—and became an independent instead. His staff, good GOP soldiers all, resigned en masse; donors and former allies renounced him. He lost his longtime campaign strategists, Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, later best known for steering Romney’s presidential campaign. Crist’s longtime chief of staff, George LeMieux, whom he had appointed to the U.S. Senate, sided with Rubio.

Crist’s older sister became his campaign manager. The Democratic candidate, a congressman named Kendrick Meek, rebuffed pleas to drop out. Rubio won with 49 percent of the vote. Crist came in second with 30 percent. Crist likes to quote the former Democrat Ronald Reagan’s famous quip about how he didn’t leave the party, the party left him. But the Republican Party didn’t so much leave Charlie Crist as forcibly eject him.

Crist listens as presidential hopeful John McCain speaks to the press in March 2008. Crist later made it onto McCain’s short list of possible running mates. (Reuters)

At the time he left office, Crist had a net worth of less than half a million dollars (compared to Scott’s more than $200 million). After finishing his term, he took a job with the firm of his friend John Morgan, a Democratic personal-injury lawyer who promptly put Crist’s face on a billboard. “Just go around Florida and be Charlie Crist—that’s his job,” Morgan tells me. Morgan says he pays Crist a “pretty decent” salary, plus a percentage of the business he generates.

In December 2008, while still governor, Crist married Carole Rome, a New Yorker 13 years his junior he’d met 14 months before. Crist’s book offers this droll account of their first conversation: “Her family was in the Halloween business, she said. I don’t think I’d ever met anyone in that field before.” He bought Carole’s engagement ring at a strip-mall storefront a couple of doors down from his local Publix grocery store—then delayed asking for her hand when, in the elevator after dinner, some fellow residents of his condo building invited them over to watch the end of a Rays baseball game. The marriage at the time was viewed as a political stunt, but five years later, it appears to be going strong. Long-running rumors that Crist might be gay appear to have quieted somewhat as a result.

When Crist left office, the couple moved out of the governor’s mansion—back into the same rented condominium in St. Petersburg where Crist had lived before taking office. Carole Crist, accustomed to a rather different lifestyle, brought a $4 million condo on a private island near Miami to the partnership. Today, Carole calls herself Charlie’s “cheerleader-in-chief.” She’s constantly pushing signs and bumper stickers on his audiences, urgently pleading with them to vote and volunteer and help him win.

For someone who runs a multimillion-dollar costume business and is close friends with one of the Real Housewives of New York City, Carole seems remarkably unaffected. She wears jeans and sneakers and a simple long-sleeved T-shirt; her sun-streaked dark hair is wavy and loose, her olive complexion evenly tanned. She looks 10 years younger than her age, 44. Like Crist, Carole is high-energy, but she lacks his air of tranquility. I ask her what it’s like to be married to him, and she gushes, “Awesome and fun and dynamic and great.” I ask for her version of their meeting, and she turns brusque: “What he says in the book is accurate. Love at first sight.” Carole is friendly, but she has boundaries. Like a normal person. Not like her husband.

The Florida sun is shining on the bright-green grass of the Biltmore Hotel’s golf course as I sit down to lunch with Ana Navarro, a tart-tongued Nicaraguan, CNN commentator, and Florida GOP strategist. Navarro was a top adviser to McCain in 2008 and is a confidant of both Jeb Bush, who keeps an office at the Biltmore, and Rubio, who sometimes works out at the Biltmore gym. (Navarro’s boyfriend owns the hotel.) The thought of Charlie Crist makes Navarro extremely irritated.

“It’s quite unbelievable that Charlie Crist is getting away with this reinvention of himself—this rewriting of history for blatantly political purposes,” Navarro says, stabbing at her salad. “Other than his gender, the guy has flip-flopped on everything, and I don’t put that past him either.”

Navarro has a cameo in Crist’s book: After his 2008 expansion of early voting, he writes, he was riding in an SUV with her and then-Senator Mel Martinez when she chewed him out, saying, “You just handed the election to Obama.” (He describes her as not “the sweetest person I’ve ever met,” which is what most people like best about her.) Navarro doesn’t deny that she reamed Crist. She recalls the scene as happening not in an SUV but aboard the McCain campaign plane, though, and she does not recall the high-minded lecture about democracy that Crist claims to have answered her with.

“Charlie Crist has gone through his entire political life with one stump speech—his grandfather polishing shoes,” Navarro says. This may be literally true. Crist’s current pitch hinges on a set of priorities beginning with “E”—education, the economy, ethics, energy, and the environment—and at one campaign stop he mentions that the “five E’s” were also the platform for his long-ago state-senate campaign. Navarro acknowledges that Crist “can be very personable,” but to her, that's the problem: “He’s a freak! When he sees me, he’ll open up his arms and say, ‘Anaaaa!’ But we hate each other.”

In addition to the flip-flopper rap, Crist’s foes point to his unsavory associates. Scott Rothstein, a convicted Ponzi schemer now doing 50 years in federal prison, resurfaced recently to testify in the trial of a former underling, and alleges that Crist sold federal judgeships in exchange for campaign contributions. Jim Greer, an obscure activist Crist elevated to chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, was accused of turning the powerful and lucrative state GOP machinery into his personal piggy bank; he pleaded guilty to several felonies last year and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Crist professes innocence of the men’s schemes.

Navarro has her own reputation as a Republican rebel; she favors gay marriage and urges her party to embrace immigration reform. She even, in 2012, prodded the current Republican governor, Scott, to expand early voting, as Crist had done to her annoyance in 2008. But Navarro does not buy Crist’s critique of the GOP. “The only thing that matters to Charlie,” she says, “is staying in the game.”

This visceral loathing is a common sentiment among the Florida Republican establishment. It is one thing to lament the forces of extremism and stupidity that plague the GOP, as Bush has also been known to do. It is quite another thing to join the other side.

If more Republicans had taken Crist’s tack in 2009, the story of the Obama Administration would be a very different one. The gratitude of the president, his aides, and Democratic donors for Crist’s early embrace consequently runs deep. According to Messina, it was 2011 when Crist, just a few months out of office, summoned the president’s campaign manager to Orlando for dinner with Charlie and Carole. “I want to help,” Crist said, of the reelection campaign. (The story is told differently in Crist’s book, which has Messina requesting the assistance rather than Crist offering it.) Throughout 2012, Messina says, Crist aided the Obama campaign with strategic advice.

Crist figured he was most useful to the campaign as an independent. But once the election was over, he sought to make an official conversion. At a White House Christmas reception, he took the Florida voter-registration form out of his pocket and, resting it on the music stand of a member of the Marine Band, checked the box for “Florida Democratic Party” and signed his name.

“I felt liberated,” he says. The zeal of his conversion can be startling. His new party has welcomed him as heartily as his old one spurned him. “I feel at home as a Democrat, I really do,” he says. Though he campaigned for McCain in 2008 and they remain friends, Crist is now fond of pointing out to Democratic audiences that his expansion of early voting probably helped Obama get elected—“and thank God for that!”

It is as if the old Crist, the Republican one, never existed.

Crist puts an affectionate arm around his wife, Carole, during a November 2013 campaign rally. (AP Photo)

Florida Democrats have had it bad for a long time, Obama’s two wins notwithstanding. Ever since Bush v. Gore, in 2000, it has been one defeat after another for the party. Every state office from governor on down is now in Republican hands, as are both houses of the legislature. The majority of the state’s congressional delegation is Republican. A Democrat was last elected governor in 1994. This long dry spell may have as much to do with Crist’s welcome by Democrats as anything else. “We’re desperate!” Geller, the former senate leader, says merrily. There is another Democrat, state Senator Nan Rich, running in the August primary, but Crist is crushing her in the polls. General-election surveys show Crist would beat Scott and Rich would not.

Democrats also have a way of hearing what they want to hear in Crist’s eclectic utterances. At a Democratic activists’ meeting in a firehouse in West Palm Beach, Lynne Hubbard, the president of the local chapter of the Florida Democratic Black Caucus, wants to know what Crist plans to do about “stand your ground,” the notorious self-defense law that critics say protects instigators of deadly violence. A Florida case, the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, ignited a national debate on the issue.

“Right now, you know, young black males are fair game,” Hubbard says. “One way or another, we need to put a stop to it.”

Crist starts by declaring his loyalty to the Second Amendment and an individual’s right to self-defense. But it’s just not right, he says, to allow the person who starts a fight to “stop it in a deadly way.” As governor, Crist says, he would not have the power to change the law, but he would recommend that the legislature do so. “I don’t know exactly how we fix it, but I know we’d better,” he says.

Crist adds, “I’m with you. They’re against you. They’re against us.”

After the meeting breaks up, I ask Hubbard what she thought of Crist’s answer. From what I heard, he expressed only qualified opposition to “stand your ground"; he said he would work to repair the law rather than ending it. But that’s not what Hubbard heard. “He said he’s going to lead the charge to repeal it,” she says.

Crist joins hands with voters during a June 2010 protest against the BP oil spill. (Reuters)

The Republicans have been sending protesters to each stop on Crist’s book tour, in order, a staffer tells me, to prevent Crist from going unrebutted in local coverage. But the gambit may be backfiring, as the picketers’ ire contrasts with Crist’s sunny self-assurance—a convenient object lesson in exactly the sort of toxic partisanship to which he offers himself as the solution. When a local reporter asks him about the protesters at one stop, Crist replies, “I’m flattered! I hope they buy the book!”

The protesters get to Crist’s book signing in the moneyed enclave of Palm Beach before he does. A heavyset white man with a ponytail circles the block repeatedly in a white SUV, waving a laminated drawing of Obama as Alfred E. Neuman out the window (big ears, blacked-out front teeth) as he passes. On his bumper, a sticker reads, “IMPRISON HOLDER/IMPEACH OBAMA.”

The other Republican volunteers have plain white posters inked in black Sharpie. “Charlie 2010 or Charlie 2014: Which One Do You Believe?” reads one. By the time the Crists pull up, the guy with the white SUV guy has parked and joined the protest. He heckles Crist as he walks up.

“The tea is getting ready to pour, buddy!” he intones. “The party’s not even started yet!”

A woman with a “You Can’t Trust Charlie” sign joins the chorus. “Opportunist!” she shouts. “Traitor!”

“The tea is brewing!” says SUV Guy. “It’s going to pour! It’s going to be scalding!”

“Traitor!”

“The teeeeea is brewing, buddy!”

Crist walks through the gnat-cloud of protesters into the tiny store. He claps an employee on the shoulder, helps set up the electric fan he demands for every public appearance. (Critics love to ridicule Crist’s ever-present fan, but he is notably unashamed, mentioning it early in his book.) A woman named Lisa Burford begins to tell me about her youthful felony conviction, how Crist got her back her right to vote, and how she’s been faithfully volunteering for him ever since.

At the back of the store, only Crist’s gleaming white head is visible, bowed over each book as he inscribes it. “Department of Corrections!” I hear him say, over the hum of the crowd. “Stephanie! A public servant! I love that!”