Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: From Chain Gang Charlie to being a changeling, Crist stays a political step ahead of his flip flops

“Chain Gang Charlie” Crist once loved that nickname; it showed he was tough on crime.

That, however, was before Crist left the Republican Party. Before he was an independent. Before he became a Democrat, a party with a significant number of black voters more apt to be troubled by images of shackled labor.

Over the years, along with his party-affiliation changes, Crist’s policy positions have zigzagged, flipped and whirled. He’s no longer Chain Gang Charlie.

Now, as ever, he’s Changeling Charlie.

Last week, the frontrunner for governor hit the trifecta of metamorphosis on three consecutive days — reinventing positions on his own reinventions (Monday), race in the GOP (Tuesday) and Cuba travel (Wednesday).

Conventional wisdom holds that modern-day party-switchers are doomed. Yet Crist leads longtime Democrat Nan Rich and Republican Gov. Rick Scott in polls.

That popularity — coupled with inflammatory rhetoric and a knack for stealing headlines and TV-news broadcast time — outrages many Republicans nowadays.

Crist’s high approval ratings are partly rooted in an irony: His reversals are consistent. Crist invariably moves toward popular positions, making many voters feel as if he’s on their side. That also enables him to contrast his penchant for bending to popular will with what he implies is the rigid ideology of Scott and GOP hardliners.

“If you take in new data, and new circumstances, and you don’t modify, you’re a fool,” Crist said. “And if you have new data or new attitudes and new experiences and open your eyes to a different point of view, then an enlightened man or woman does so.”

“I think Floridians understand that. And I don’t think it bothers them at all,” Crist said. “Each and every one of us, in our lives, if we’re honest with ourselves, have changed our minds about things.”

In addition to party switching, no politician has changed quite like Crist: Obamacare (against it, now for it), President Barack Obama’s stimulus (for it, against it, for it again), gay marriage (now for it), cap-and-trade global warming legislation (for it, ran away from it, for it again), taxes (he broke a no-new-taxes pledge in 2009) or offshore drilling (against it, sort of for it, against it again).

Oh, and he also considers himself pro-choice and pro-life.

Even Crist has trouble keeping track of the shifts. He said Friday he didn’t remember repeatedly criticizing 2006 gubernatorial opponent Jim Davis for showing “bad judgment” by going to Cuba three years before as a member of Congress.

“He took it upon himself to visit Cuba,” Crist, then a pro-embargo hardliner, said on Miami’s Cuban-exile station, Radio Mambi. “Charlie Crist would never do that.”

But on Wednesday, Crist’s campaign confirmed he now wants to go to Cuba, perhaps this summer. He points out that other politicians (though not candidates in statewide races) have gone and makes sure to mention … Davis.

During the 2006 race, Davis was hampered by troubles appealing to black voters. He chose an African-American running mate from Miami, Daryl Jones. The Democrats briefly made an issue of Crist’s running mate, Jeff Kottkamp, once backing a pro-Confederate flag bill in the Legislature.

And, briefly, they played up the racial connotations of Crist’s “Chain Gang Charlie” nickname.

They never mentioned that Jones at one point supported Crist’s legislation to bring back roadside work crews. The legislation passed when the two served together in the state Senate in 1995 — an era when this and other tough-on-crime legislation passed with bipartisan and biracial support. Crist was mockingly nicknamed Chain Gang Charlie.

But Crist wore the label with pride. It didn’t appear to cost him in 2006. He campaigned hard for the African-American vote and won 18 percent of it, an all-time high for a modern-day Republican governor.

In his new party, Crist more than ever needs black voters, 28 percent of registered Democrats. He no longer says “Hey, I’m Chain Gang Charlie.”

Now Republicans, who once promoted Crist and his nickname, are bemoaning the racial undertones of it. They say nothing of how he streamlined the restoration of civil rights for some nonviolent former convicts, extended early voting hours, pushed civil rights legislation and banned the racially tinged state song Old Folks at Home at his 2007 inaugural.

So Crist isn’t the only changeling.

One shadowy attack group has posted a quasi-attack ad on YouTube that reminds viewers of Chain Gang Charlie while featuring black-and-white video footage of shackled black men toiling on work crews.

On Tuesday, Crist made another startling shift. He told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos that he left the GOP in 2010 partly because “I couldn’t be consistent with myself and my core beliefs, and stay with a party that was so unfriendly toward the African-American president.”

Ramos pointed out that Crist became an independent because he was losing the Republican U.S. Senate primary to Marco Rubio. Crist denied it.

Crist didn’t name these alleged bigots.

One Republican caused a stir in 2010 for calling President Obama and Rubio as, respectively, “a black one, and … a Hispanic who can run his mouth at Mach 1.” He called both “gritty.”

But Crist refused to condemn the comments because they were made by his political supporter: Bud Day, a Panhandle Republican made most famous for appearing in a 2004 “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ad bashing the war record of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

“Well, everyone has a right to their analysis and how they think somebody performs in office, and it sounds like he gave his analysis,” Crist told me then, saying he welcomed Day’s support.

Rubio later chimed in on FOX, highlighting how Crist had remained quiet about this alleged bigotry for years, and only offered this new revelation now that he’s a Democrat.

“Even Democrats will be embarrassed that Charlie Crist became a Democrat,” Rubio said.

Crist’s re-reinventions have been an ongoing story since 2010, and at the beginning of the week NBC6’s Steve Litz asked the candidate during a Miami stop how he responds to charges that he is “evolving on a variety of issues.”

Crist said: “I really haven’t. That’s how I answer it.” Crist did acknowledge that “on gay marriage I have evolved.”

I asked him about a so-called DREAMer bill giving some undocumented immigrants in-state college tuition rates. Crist opposed it in 2006. He supports it now.

Question: “That’s another evolution. You said you haven’t really evolved on a lot of things….”

Crist: “Not many. Not many.”

Q: “Well, there’s that. There’s gay marriage. There’s Obamacare. I could maybe come up with a few more…”

Crist: “Ok. There’s three. God bless you.”

Me: So why change on DREAMer tuition?

Q: “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”

Guess who essentially gives the same answer?

Scott said he plans to sign the just-passed legislation. In 2011, he opposed the measure (saying it on video) but he somehow now denies he ever said that.

Yes, Crist isn’t the only changeling.

But, having won three of his previous five statewide races, he hopes voters embrace the idea that, aside from him being on the ballot, one of the only constants is change.

“The voters know me,” Crist said. “And they know Rick Scott.”