PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) - There was no hug and little in the way of a photo op, but Gov. Charlie Crist did get a brief pat on the shoulder Saturday from President Barack Obama.
It came after Obama made his only scheduled public comments during a two-day trip with his family to the Florida Panhandle to promote a tourism industry that has been battered by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Obama was at the podium at the Panama City Coast Guard Station with first lady Michelle at his side in front of the cutter Coho and a phalanx of blue-clad Coast Guardsmen.
Crist, who needs Democratic votes in his run for the U.S. Senate as an independent, watched Obama, who is backing Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek in that race, from a distance well behind a bank of cameras. The governor didn't get an embrace, although the first lady did hug Panama City Mayor Scott Clemons.
Earlier they had a meeting with local officials and business people to discuss spill recovery strategy.
Afterward, Crist also told reporters he supported Obama's view that Muslims have the right to build a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York, and he was full of praise for the first family's Panhandle visit.
"It's the biggest single commercial that you could imagine," Crist said. "God bless him for utilizing the bully pulpit that he has to promote tourism in Florida."
What's become known simply as "the hug" in Florida political lore occurred last year when Crist embraced Obama during a visit to Fort Myers to promote the president's stimulus program.
That and Crist's enthusiastic support of the stimulus plan opposed by most Republicans put the governor on a road that led to his divorce from the GOP and independent candidacy.
Crist also defended Obama against Republican criticism that his brief, one-night visit is nothing more than a "27-hour guilt trip" coming three months after oil began spewing from BP LLC's Deepwater Horizon well off Louisiana.
"On behalf of Florida, and as Florida's sitting governor, I couldn't be more grateful that the president and the First Lady of the United States have taken the time to come to our Gulf Coast and highlight Florida and promote tourism and jobs for our people," Crist said. "There's no other way to look at this."
As for Obama's view on the proposed New York City mosque, Crist said: "We're a country that in my view stands for freedom of religion and respect for others. I know there are sensitivities and I understand them. ... This is a place where you're supposed to be able to practice your religion without the government telling you you can't."
Obama, meanwhile, expanded on his initial statement on the subject Friday. He said he agrees Muslims have a right to build the mosque, but he did not say whether he believes it is a good idea to do so.
In the Senate race, Meek is locked in a primary battle with billionaire Jeff Greene for the Democratic nomination. Crist pulled out of the Republican primary and is running as an independent after polls showed him badly trailing former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has drawn strong backing from the tea party movement, for the GOP nomination.
Rubio later issued a statement disagreeing with Obama and Crist on the New York mosque.
"We are a nation founded on strong principles of religious freedom," Rubio said. "However, we cannot be blind to the pain 9/11 caused our nation and the families of the victims. It is divisive and disrespectful to build a mosque next to the site where 3,000 innocent people were murdered at the hands of Islamic extremism."