Florida Democrats turn to Charlie Crist to win back Governor’s Mansion

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Charlie Crist easily defeated former state Sen. Nan Rich Tuesday and claimed the Florida Democratic Party as his own. The former Republican governor exiled by the GOP for a series of vetoes and other decisions picked up 74 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

Crist exceeded expectations. Pundits said he had to post a strong showing to demonstrate that activists in his new party were comfortable with his evolution from a Reagan Republican to an Obama Democrat.  A Public Policy Polling survey in January showed Crist leading Rich 58 to 16 percent. A St. Pete Polls survey released Friday had the race at 69 – 19 percent.

Crist was a popular governor, consistently posting favorability ratings above 65 percent in the midst of a deep recession that required billions of dollars in state spending cuts. After splitting with the GOP, Crist won over many Democrats by campaigning for President Barack Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson and with his ability to raise money.

The Rich campaign operated on a shoe-string budget with less than $1 million, not enough for Rich to introduce herself to the state. Many feminists backing Rich viewed Crist’s refusal to debate her as a sign of disrespect. Crist will now begin the wooing of his former rival’s supporters. Rich will stand with Crist at two unity rallies scheduled Thursday in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

This is Crist’s sixth statewide race since 1998 and Republicans are mining his past statements to raise doubts about where he stands on issues.

A committee affiliated with state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, has been running ads featuring a Crist recording from 2006 stating that he is pro-life, supports traditional marriage and is a consistent conservative.

On the campaign trail, Crist tells voters he’ll have their backs and has released a plan to bolster the middle class. If elected, Crist promises to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid and increase spending on public schools.

An estimated $25 million advertising blitz this summer by the Scott campaign to define Crist wiped out a 10-point lead Crist had over Scott. At a Tampa event earlier this month, Crist brushed off a question about political attack ads, noting that despite millions spent to attack him, Scott hasn’t built a lead.

“What that tells me about my fellow Floridians is that they’re pretty smart and they see through this trash talk,” said Crist. “The kind of ads we are going to run are going to be honest ads that tell the truth about Rick Scott. And when we tell the truth about Rick Scott, they’ll think it is hell but we’re just telling the truth.”

Democrats have scheduled two unity rallies Thursday with Crist and Rich appearing together in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

Democrats have not won a gubernatorial election since 1994.  An aggregation of polls gives Gov. Scott a 2-point edge, within the margin of error and indicating the race between Crist and Scott is a dead heat.