Crist easing into Senate race

DAYTONA BEACH — Gov. Charlie Crist told a luncheon crowd Tuesday that he was proud to stand up for the $787 billion federal stimulus package, addressing an issue already seized upon by his main opponent in the upcoming Republican U.S. Senate primary.

Crist has been hesitant to talk about the race while carrying out his responsibilities as governor but began to ease himself into the dual role while talking to the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce and the Volusia County Tiger Bay Club. He hadn’t answered many questions about the campaign or federal issues since announcing his plans to run last week.

He spent a significant chunk of his 25 minutes of remarks talking about the stimulus package, saying without it the state would have needed to raise taxes. Crist’s primary opponent, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, has criticized the package and is pointing out that Crist appeared with Democratic President Barack Obama to promote it.

“I’m pragmatic and I’m practical and as a chief executive it’s important to get things done to make sure that your children get a good education, to make sure that the most vulnerable in our society get the health care that they need, to make sure that we have public safety so that crime doesn’t go up. That’s why I stood for it,” said Crist, who hopes to replace Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who is retiring after one term.

Republicans in Washington widely opposed the package. All House Republicans voted against it, and only three Republican senators voted for it. Crist’s appearance with Obama made some Republicans uncomfortable, while others defended him, saying his view as governor is different from the perspective of members of Congress.

Asked by an audience member if he would have supported the stimulus package if he was already in the Senate, Crist said, “Of course.”

“Ask the members of the Legislature what our alternative would have been if we didn’t have that stimulus. I’ll tell you what it would have been — we would have had to raise taxes dramatically to make the budget balance because we can’t run a deficit in Florida. Our constitution will not permit it,” Crist said. “That’s a great thing. I wish they had that in Washington.”

Before his talk turned to the stimulus, Crist built up to remarks about his Senate run by listing a resume of accomplishments as governor on a wide range of issues. He said insurance and property tax rates have dropped since he took office in 2007 while Florida’s public school rankings have risen substantially.

“Public service is what makes me happy. It brings me joy. It’s like a calling and that’s what I want to do,” Crist said. “I’d be proud to represent you in Washington. It’s important, I think, now more than ever that we have people who can work with others to get things done. We have done it in Tallahassee. I call it the Florida way and it would be nice if they can do it in Washington.”

He mentioned his efforts to purchase sugar farm land to protect the Everglades, and a program that helps make health insurance more accessible for residents who don’t have it.

“This are the good things that are happening in Florida,” he said.

He was also asked about federal immigration policy.

“It’s terribly important that we secure our border and stop illegal immigration for the very reason that we can continue to have legal immigration. Our country’s always stood for that,” Crist said.

Talking to reporters afterward, he said he would support an immigration bill similar to the failed 2007 legislation that many Republicans opposed because it provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. President George W. Bush, eventual Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Martinez supported the measure.

“I like Sen. Martinez’ and Sen. McCain’s approach,” Crist said. “I thought they had the right idea and maybe just a little more support up there would help it get it done.”