By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - No longer a Republican and not yet a Democrat, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist emerged from the political wilderness and addressed the Democratic Party convention in Charlotte on Thursday night in a bid to woo independent voters.
Crist's appearance could boost Obama's appeal in Florida, a crucial swing state where the president is in a statistical tie with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and one voter in five has no party affiliation.
Obama won Florida in 2008 and its 29 electoral votes would go a long way toward helping him to a second term.
Calling himself "a former lifelong Republican," Crist gave a strong endorsement of Obama in his convention speech, jabbing at Romney, his running mate Paul Ryan and their party.
"They're beholden to 'my way or the highway' bullies, indebted to billionaires who bankroll ads and allergic to the very idea of compromise," Crist said. "Ronald Reagan would not have stood for that. Barack Obama does not stand for that. You and I won't stand for that."
Crist's uneven record as a one-term governor and his calamitous drop in popularity make him a questionable campaign asset. Several top Florida Democratic Party members queried his convention invitation, recalling how many of Crist's past policy positions were diametrically opposed to the party's platform.
The Republican Party of Florida compiled a 30-second mash-up of Crist's praise for Republicans like former President George W. Bush, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
"I'm a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax Republican. I'm about as conservative as you can get," Crist says in the ad airing statewide on cable television this week.
Crist bolted from the party in 2010, when polling suggested he would lose the nomination for U.S. Senate to Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio. Crist ran as an independent and Rubio won the three-way race handily.
After leaving the governor's mansion in January 2011, Crist joined Morgan & Morgan, a personal injury law firm whose slogan is "working for the people, against the powerful."
Trim, white-haired and perpetually tanned, Crist was a popular governor. Quinnipiac polled him at 68 percent favorable and 21 percent unfavorable in February 2009, and his support among Republicans regularly topped 80 percent.
Crist endorsed John McCain in the Florida Republican Primary in 2008. But he embraced Obama - literally - as the president campaigned for his stimulus bill in 2009, giving him a big hug that was videotaped and replayed endlessly. It reinforced Republican suspicions that Crist was not a true conservative.
On the night before the Republicans opened their convention in Tampa, Crist wrote an editorial for the Tampa Bay Times endorsing Obama and praising his "willingness to navigate a realistic path to prosperity."
Florida Republicans have responded to Crist's apostasy by painting him as an opportunist who may be planning to run for governor again in 2014, as a Democrat. "This is Charlie Crist trying to shed his skin for a political comeback," Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry wrote in an e-mail.
After his endorsement of Obama only 36 percent of Florida voters had a positive opinion of Crist, to 44 percent who were negative, Public Policy Polling found.
"Independents I think like him better than everybody else," Public Policy Polling Director Tom Jensen said.
Florida Democrats made it clear that it was the Obama campaign's decision to put Crist on the podium, and it did not signal their support for another gubernatorial run.
"I'm one of those believers that if you want to join our church you're always welcome in the congregation. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to make you a preacher," ABC television affiliate WZVN quoted Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith as saying after a delegation breakfast in Charlotte on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Charlotte; Editing by Alistair Bell and Alden Bentley)