TAMPA — Former governor and former Republican Charlie Crist is expected to announce his 2014 candidacy for governor as a Democrat on Monday in St. Petersburg, but a primary battle between Crist and Nan Rich already has begun.
The battle lines were drawn at last weekend’s state Democratic Party conference in Orlando, where both worked the crowd of some 1,500 Democrats gathered to prep for the 2014 campaign.
Rich, a former state senator from Weston and a long-time leader of the liberal side of the state Democratic Party, now talks about Crist in campaign speeches, comparing her record as “a life-long Democrat” to his record as a former Republican.
Crist, meanwhile, emphasizes in his speeches the need to defeat Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
During the conference, Crist was mobbed wherever he appeared by people wanting a photo or a handshake as he tried to move through hallways or get into a caucus room for a stump speech.
Rich got attention, too.
Showing up late to speak to the Hispanic Caucus, she quipped, “Sorry – I was held up in the hallway by people wanting photos. I feel like Charlie Crist.”
The battle may seem one-sided.
Crist is a household name with a history of winning statewide races and raising millions of dollars, and a reputation as one of the best person-to-person politicians in the nation.
“If anybody wants to see the definition of retail politics, just watch him walk through these halls,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus, an observer at the gathering.
Always late to get somewhere, Crist was still delighted to shake every hand and pose for every photo.
When a sobbing woman grabbed him in a hallway to tell him her son’s criminal record was preventing him from getting a job, Crist took her aside for a conversation to calm her down — and placed a cell phone call to the son.
Rich has never run for statewide office and her fundraising is slow — $216,000 since May 2012. But she’s showing no signs of giving up, and both candidates have weaknesses in the coming battle.
Crist’s is his susceptibility to attack by Republicans, and some Democrats, as a political chameleon with no core principles who left the governor’s office in the dark days of the Great Recession and now wants back in.
“He could be governor today if he wanted to,” said Susan Smith of Tampa, president of the state party’s Progressive Caucus. “I blame him for Marco Rubio” — meaning that Crist’s move to run as an independent for senator in 2010 split the anti-Rubio votes.
Some Democrats, particularly progressives and women’s advocates, still aren’t sure they trust Crist’s conversion from someone who once called himself a Reagan Republican and vowed to emulate Jeb Bush to a Democrat now allied with President Barack Obama.
“If he wants to prove he’s a Democrat, he ought to work like hell to get a Democrat other than himself elected,” said Kathie Jaskolski of Vero Beach, a Rich backer. “Then we could work to get him elected. To waltz into our party and say, ‘Make me your king’ is kind of presumptuous.”
But for most Democrats, even if they’re leery about Crist, the desire for a winner overcomes any suspicion.
“I’m not entirely convinced,” said Elizabeth Corwin of Tampa after hearing Crist speak at the Women’s Caucus meeting Sunday. “I’m still on the fence — but who can win will play a large role in my decision. We have to be Scott-free.”
Out of power since the late 1990s, “Democrats have been so disenfranchised so long there’s a unifying hunger to elect someone at the statewide level,” said former U.S. Rep. Ron Klein of Boca Raton. “Most people are going to look at this race as who can win.”
Electability is Rich’s weakness — her lack of name recognition compared to Crist and the conventional political wisdom that a South Florida liberal can’t win a statewide race.
“The state of Florida is pretty much a centrist state,” said former state Sen. Steve Geller of Broward County, a Crist backer. “I believe you need a centrist candidate to win. If you’re perceived as a South Florida liberal, it’s more difficult to get elected.”
In speeches to Democrats, the two candidates battled those perceptions.
“I want to talk about women’s issues because I think it’s important for you to see my heart,” Crist told the Women’s Caucus.
“I fought for you before I was even one of you,” he said, referring to pro-choice issues he backed as a Republican legislator and governor, including vetoing a bill requiring an ultrasound test prior to an abortion. “Please judge me by my deeds.”
In an interview, Crist said he understands why some Democrats are leery.
“It takes some time to believe that it’s real and it’s genuine,” he said. “That’s perfectly understandable. The passage of time is a great healer.”
Rich, meantime, points out that Democrats have lost three governor’s races in a row with moderate candidates from Tampa — Alex Sink, her late husband Bill McBride and former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis.
In speeches at the conference, she promised a volunteer-driven, grass-roots campaign to make up for her comparatively paltry fundraising, noting that Democratic icons Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham were all comparatively unknown state legislators when they won their first statewide races, she said.
“There are Democrats who believe Florida is too conservative to elect a progressive in a statewide race,” but that can’t be true in a state that voted twice for Obama, she told the gathered Democrats.
“The voters looked beyond the 30-second spots and into the eyes of the volunteers who went door to door to get out the vote” for Obama. “That’s the kind of campaign I’m building.”
In an interview, she acknowledged Crist’s talent for politics.
“He has style — glad-handing is his style. But I focus on issues, and I think this election has to be about substance,” she said.
Crist’s response: “I think Nan Rich has both style and substance — but hopefully I do, too.”