ST. PETERSBURG — In many ways, Democrat Charlie Crist’s message as he began his campaign for governor Monday was the same as when he was a Republican governor.
He called for investment in clean energy, more money for schools, tax breaks for small businesses. Even the slogan is the same — signs were printed up saying “The People’s Governor.” And he was wildly received by the group of supporters who came out to a park near Crist’s downtown home, just as they did when he was a Republican.
But while Crist enjoys near universal name ID in Florida and, if he wins the nomination, will be facing an unpopular governor in Republican Rick Scott, this will be a tough campaign.
Crist will be up against money and attacks like he’s never seen before in a political career where he has won three statewide offices and lost two U.S. Senate races. And he knows it.
“He’s trying to bully me by waving around his $100 million checkbook. A $100 million. And he says he will start spending $25 million — I think it begins tonight — on me with false advertising, negative ads and nothing about his record because he doesn’t have a record he’s proud of,” Crist told the crowd of about 200. “If we are tireless in our desire to make Florida a better place again, then Rick Scott can spend a billion dollars on dishonest ads and it won’t matter.”
If the race is about personality, Crist should do fine. He’s one of Florida’s best retail politicians and Scott is often an awkward campaigner who’s never had the approval of even half the state’s voters.
“He brings something to the table that Rick Scott doesn’t have and that’s likeability,” said Democratic pollster David Beattie, who isn’t working with Crist. “If you ask people who loves the state more, people will probably say Charlie Crist. Who would they rather have a beer with? They’re going to say Charlie Crist.”
But it’s not just going to be about personality. Republicans and Scott have made it clear how they’re going to attack Crist. For months they’ve pointed out that Florida’s economy and employment tanked while Crist was governor and that it has improved under Scott. While Florida’s rebound largely reflects that of the nation’s, Scott is taking credit for it, and every week he holds press conferences to announce new jobs. His slogan has gone from “let’s get to work” to “it’s working.”
Scott and Republicans are also trying to tear down Crist’s image. They call him a political opportunist who said one thing to win office as a Republican and is saying another as a Democrat. They say he’s untrustworthy and his only concern is his political career.
Crist is now the Democratic front-runner in a primary that also includes former state Sen. Nan Rich, who has struggled to raise money and with her name recognition while campaigning for nearly a year-and-a-half. Republicans and Scott will focus their money and efforts on Crist in what is sure to be the most expensive and brutal campaign the state has seen.
Crist was once one of the biggest superstars in Florida Republican politics. He left the state Senate to take on Democratic Sen. Bob Graham in 1998, a campaign he was never expected to win but one which helped him build a statewide base. Two years later he was elected education commissioner, then attorney general in 2002. In 2006, he won the governor’s race and his popularity soared on a message of bipartisanship.
Then his political fortunes came crashing down in 2010 when the tea party movement was at its height and Marco Rubio came out of nowhere to chase Crist from the GOP primary for U.S. Senate. Crist ended up running as an independent and lost the race, and with it, he burned his bridges with Republicans.
Crist will have to prove that he’s still the proficient fundraiser he was as a Republican. Most of the people who pumped millions into his past campaigns are now going to support Scott. Crist also has to convince the big Democratic donors that his political conversion is for real and that he can win.
Opponents were at Crist’s announcement handing out fans that showed him as a Republican on one side and as a Democrat on the other. On both sides were the words, “Charlie Crist is a fan of whatever you want him to be.”
It’s a point that Crist himself might not argue with. He’s embraced the description of a populist who wants to do want the people want him to do.
“When the people give you the honor of being their governor, you’re not the governor for any one party, you are the governor for all Floridians,” Crist said during his announcement. “No matter what they say, it is not a sin to reach across the aisle. It is your obligation to work together.”
And Crist plans to make the argument that Scott cares more about large corporate donors than he does about average people. He will cast Scott as an extremist with a tea party mentality. And he will revive the most damning case made against Scott by his 2010 Republican and Democratic opponents — that he was forced to leave as CEO of the nation’s largest hospital chain in 1997 amid an investigation that eventually led Columbia/HCA to pay a record $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud.
“Governor Scott has led like this: Embrace the ideological fringes, take care of his friends, bully his opponents, hide from the public and the press and run from tough issues,” Crist said. “It really shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. He hid from federal investigators as a businessman and his company had to pay the largest fine at the time for fraud in the history of America.”
Scott’s political committee began airing attack ads Monday, spending more than $500,000 on a 30-second spot that uses old anti-Crist quotes from prominent Democrats, including former party chairwoman Karen Thurman’s line that Crist’s “only core belief is personal ambition.”
And the Republican Party of Florida held an afternoon conference call to use one of Crist’s former allies, George LeMieux, against him. LeMieux worked as chief of staff when Crist was attorney general, ran Crist’s 2006 campaign for governor and was appointed by Crist to serve in the U.S. Senate after Mel Martinez resigned.
“He’s unrecognizable to me in this new form he’s in and he’s got a lot of explaining to do,” said LeMieux, adding that Crist has taken two or three positions on nearly every major issue.
Crist said he understands former friends will be against him.
“There are times in life when people disappoint you,” Crist said about LeMieux. “But I have chosen when that happens to turn the other cheek and I’ll just keep moving forward and understand that sometimes some people do things that are wrong but we have to forgive and forget.”
Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington