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Will Crist have to fight an enthusiasm gap?

TALLAHASSEE — In a rapid succession of self-congratulatory and fundraising emails from Democrat Charlie Crist's gubernatorial campaign in the hours after his primary victory Tuesday, there was a consistent message: “Game on.”

Crist's employing a term more commonly found in the sports lexicon is a nod to the fact that the Republican and Democratic primaries weren't a game between evenly matched opponents. Both Crist and Republican Gov. Rick Scott secured easy victories, and the real contest — the general election — begins now.

Though Crist won the primary easily, the numbers weren't all positive for his camp.

He received 622,986 votes, 211,408 fewer than Scott got in his Republican primary. Overall, more than 114,000 more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots statewide.

Republicans usually vote in larger numbers during primaries, a fact Democrats mention when asked about the gap. But numbers from primary night could underscore not just an enthusiasm problem but an indication Crist is outmatched in the ground game.

Scott's campaign has nearly 50 field offices across the state and in a memo released to reporters in late July, deputy campaign manager Tim Saler said the campaign had already knocked on more than 350,000 doors. Crist's campaign has roughly 20 offices and far less money, which means it hasn't been able to match Scott's ground game.

In addition, when analyzing Tuesday's turnout numbers, it's clear that Democrats' pockets of support not only had low turnout, but some of the lowest in the state.

Five counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, and Hillsborough — comprise one-quarter of the state's 11 million registered Democrats. Those counties averaged 13 percent turnout, below the statewide average of 17 percent.

“We don't have an enthusiasm problem,” insisted Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party. “There really was not any giant races on the ballot, which was part of it.”

The Republicans' races Tuesday were higher-profile, which generated more buzz and higher turnout rates, Ceasar said, noting that a dislike for Scott has motivated his party.

“He has really been our biggest unifying factor,” Ceasar said.

Dan Gelber, a top Crist adviser, pointed to the fact that the number of Republicans voting this year was down nearly 350,000 compared with the 2010 gubernatorial primary.

“I'm not sure Republican voters are particularly excited about their guy, probably because they know him, too,” Gelber wrote on his personal blog.

In 2010, there was a high-profile Republican primary between Scott and former Attorney General Bill McCollum. More than 1 million people voted for those two candidates alone, which helped drive up statewide turnout to 22 percent.

Brendan Gilfillan, a Crist campaign spokesman, shook off any suggestion that the Democrats are facing an enthusiasm gap headed into the general election campaign.

“Our base is united and energized to restore Rick Scott's $1.3 billion cut to education and elect a governor who fights for middle-class families, not just those at the top,” he said.

Contact: Matt.Dixon@naplesnews.com


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