TAMPA — On his first day as an candidate for governor, Charlie Crist got down to the crucial first order of business - raising the money he’ll need to take on the expected $100 million campaign onslaught from Gov. Rick Scott.
Crist also fended off a challenge from his opponent in the Democratic primary, former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, for a series of 10 debates in the primary.
But a kerfluffle surrounding Crist’s Fort Lauderdale fundraiser underscored the primary battle he still faces before he could take on Scott in 2014.
One of the fundraiser hosts, Andrew Weinstein, is also finance chairman of the state Democratic Party. After inquiries by Rich, Weinstein was asked to leave the voluntary post because his work for Crist was considered a violation of the requirement that the party stay neutral in a primary.
Rich is seeking one debate in each of Florida’s 10 media markets, ending with a statewide televised debate the week before the August 26, 2014 primary.
“Charlie is a Democrat now, but he’s changed more than his party registration – he’s changed his stance on many major issues, and voters I’ve met with wonder how committed he is to his new found positions,” Rich said in a news release. “I hope that he will embrace this opportunity to debate the important issues Floridian’s care about.”
Crist has consistently declined to return fire when criticized by Rich or her supporters, at least a few of whom don’t accept his conversion. But he also declined to say whether he’ll debate Rich.
“Gov. Crist has nothing but the utmost respect for Sen. Rich and her service to Florida and he looks forward to having a conversation with all Floridians about the right course for moving Florida forward,” said a statement from Crist campaign adviser Kevin Cate.
Rich said she’s received no response to her challenge from the Crist campaign.
It’s natural that Rich, an underdog against Crist, would seek debates while Crist, the frontrunner, would be less enthusiastic, said University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith.
Rich, who’s not nearly as well known as Crist and has little money to buy television exposure, has everything to gain from debates. Crist has little to gain but much to lose.
“Nearly everyone who’ll be voting in the August primary has heard of him, and many have favorable views, but many do not know his positions on major issues,” Smith said. “Some of his positions won’t reflect Democratic primary voters’ expectations.”
He said Rich hopes to “capitalize on Crist’s name recognition” to get exposure for herself, “but at the same time distinguish herself” in voters’ minds.
Weinstein, a prominent Coral Springs trial lawyer, hosted a fundraiser for Crist at the home of prominent Fort Lauderdale and fellow Democratic fundraiser Mitchell Berger on Tuesday.
Rich said she discussed that with state Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant and party executive director Scott Arceneaux and was told they have asked Weinstein to resign his voluntary position.
A spokesman for the state party wouldn’t confirm or deny that.
“Chair Tant and Andrew Weinstein have had a number of conversations today and we’re not prepared right now to make any announcement,” said spokesman Josh Karp.
Weinstein was a major fundraiser for Obama, credited with raising at least $500,000 in 2012, and a member of Obama’s national fundraising committee. He has been party finance chairman since February, part of a restructuring of party fundraising by Tant, also an Obama fundraiser, after she became party chairman in January.
Former state Sen. Steve Geller of Fort Lauderdale, another fundraiser co-host, said he hoped the event would bring in as much as $200,000 and scoffed at the idea that Weinstein violated any political propriety by raising money for Crist.
“I don’t recall that when he volunteered to help the party raise money, he also gave up his constitutional right to support a candidate of his choice,” Geller said. “In this particular race, I think most people agree that Crist is the likely Democratic nominee.”
Geller said he hopes Crist and his Democratic allies, including the state party and an independent political committee, will raise $50 million for the campaign.
He said that should be enough to take on Scott because voters’ knowledge of Crist will help immunize him from being “defined,” or attacked, by negative ads, he said.
To help smooth his path within his new party, Crist has brought onto his team several veterans of Obama’s past Florida campaigns.
Crist’s senior adviser is Steve Schale, director of Obama’s 2012 Florida campaign, and his fundraising consultant is Jessica Clark. His media, direct mail and polling consultants also are Obama veterans.