Charlie Crist’s campaign focused on South Florida

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Former Gov. Charlie Crist arrived at Maria Rodriguez’ home in Little Havana to talk about health care in what was billed as a listening tour.

“You have some beautiful fruit,” Crist told her as he sat down at a dining table. Rodriguez told him about her 19-year-old daughter’s lung condition and how she makes too much to receive Medicaid, but not enough to apply for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

But the meeting wasn’t so much about Rodriguez. There was a crowd of reporters, videographers and photographers and a handful of campaign staffers crammed into the small apartment for the one-on-one conversation, and the goal was to get media coverage of the visit in a crucial area for Crist: Miami.

Crist was a Republican during most of his earlier campaigns for governor, Senate, attorney general and education commissioner. His campaigns had a heavier focus on the I-4 corridor, Jacksonville, the Panhandle and southwest Florida as he sought to solidify conservative voters and win over independents. Now that he’s a Democrat facing Republican Gov. Rick Scott, he is spending a lot of time in South Florida and the three counties with the most Democratic votes: Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

“We are focused on South Florida,” Crist said in a recent interview with Associated Press reporters. “… The whole state’s important, but there are pockets that have a more significant importance as it relates to the turnout question.”

While Crist hasn’t entirely ignored the rest of the state, he hasn’t traveled as broadly as Scott, who has taken a statewide approach to campaigning since the Legislative session ended in May. Scott toured the state on a different theme each week, using his family’s plane to hit a different media market or two each day. He also did a two-week, statewide bus tour to promote his proposed tax cuts.

Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink learned the significance of South Florida for Democrats when she lost to Scott in 2010. Only 42 percent of Broward Democrats voted, a drop-off of 7 percentage points from the 2006 gubernatorial election. Palm Beach had 47 percent of its Democrats vote, but that was also a 7 percentage point drop from 2006.

Combined, the two counties had 923,127 registered Democrats. If they had matched 2006 turnout, it would have meant about 65,000 more Democrats going to the polls. Sink lost by 61,550 votes.

“I’m rooting for my team to get more voters out,” Sink said recently. “They’re definitely there. It’s not that I was ignoring South Florida, my gosh, that’s the Democratic voter rich area, but we didn’t have enough money. We were short about $8 million in our budget.”

Democratic pollster Dave Beattie, who worked on Sink’s 2010 campaign, said that Crist’s focus on South Florida can make a difference in a close race.

“There are few places where you can pick up two points statewide by spending time in them,” Beattie said.

He also said Crist should be able to better benefit from the get-out-the-vote strategy that President Barack Obama used in 2012, when changes in the election law imposed by Republicans forced the campaign to ramp up a push to vote by absentee ballot rather than early voting at the polls.

And unlike Sink, who many voters weren’t familiar with, Crist doesn’t have to spend money and time introducing himself to voters because they already know him, Beattie said.

Combined, the three South Florida counties have almost 1.5 million registered Democrats, or nearly 32 percent of Florida’s registered Democrats.

Crist, a St. Petersburg resident who affectionately calls his hometown “The `burg,” is spending so much time in South Florida that he and his wife, Carole, have rented an apartment in Fort Lauderdale.

Since Aug. 1, Crist has visited 21 black churches in South Florida. And of Crist’s 38 campaign field offices statewide, 21 are in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.

So it’s also no coincidence that his running mate, Annette Taddeo, was the Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairwoman when he picked her. She’s very familiar with the area’s Democrats and can help grassroots efforts.

“South Florida is going to do very well,” Taddeo said. “We have a few things that are different. First of all, Charlie Crist is a governor that we like and that we know, even when he was a Republican, and second of all we have a running mate from South Florida.”

And she noted that concentration of field offices in the area.

“The numbers are amazing as far as the ground that we’re doing that we didn’t do” in 2010, Taddeo said. “I’m so glad that we invested in that.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.