Crist says he didn’t know Obama was in Florida

TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Charlie Crist is a busy man, trying to do his job as Florida’s chief executive and run for a U.S. Senate seat at the same time.

But it surprised Tallahassee reporters when the governor said he didn’t know President Barack Obama was in the state Monday to honor sailors and Marines at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, less than 200 miles from the Capitol.

“Where was he?” Crist asked Tuesday. “First I’ve known of it.”

While the president was saluting the nation’s fighting men and women, Crist was visiting the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood for a 40th anniversary celebration with tribal leaders.

The Republican governor has tried to distance himself from Obama since entering the Senate race this spring. Crist’s GOP primary challenger, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, frequently reminds voters that Crist hugged Obama at a Florida appearance in February to support passage of the $787 billion federal stimulus bill.

Crist defended that appearance just last week, saying it was appropriate to show respect for the presidency.

It was the second time Crist has avoided appearing with a sitting president visiting the Sunshine State. On the eve of his election in 2006, Crist snubbed Republican President George W. Bush – the older brother of then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – at a Pensacola rally.

Recent polls have shown Rubio slashing into what once appeared to be a Crist lead in next August’s Senate primary. Crist appointed George LeMieux, his former chief-of-staff, to fill in when Sen. Mel Martinez bailed out 16 months before the end of his first term.

In his first Senate ads, Crist reversed his original support and criticized Obama for the bailout policy the governor initially supported.

Crist got a second chance to talk about his decision to ignore Obama’s visit, but instead said again he wasn’t aware of the Jacksonville stop.

“Explain that comment? Is it unclear?” Crist responded after being asked a couple of hours later following a Cabinet meeting. “I didn’t know that he was in the state.”

Asked a third time, Crist said he was aware that Obama was coming, but didn’t know the itinerary.

White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said Tuesday that Crist’s office was notified of the president’s Florida visit.