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December 9, 2012

Florida’s Crist may run again; GOP says it's ready

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Now that former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is a Democrat, pretty much everyone in Florida’s political world expects him to seek his old job.

“I will consider it, and I will think about it,” Crist told The Associated Press by phone while boating off of Miami and before a planned dinner Saturday evening with former Democratic governor and Sen. Bob Graham.

The former Republican governor revealed his long-anticipated conversion Friday, after more than two years as an independent. He made the announcement on Twitter and included a photo of his new voter registration form, which he filled out at the White House.

Earlier Saturday, Florida Republicans gathered for a meeting and said they will be extra motivated to re-elect Gov. Rick Scott if his opponent is Crist, who left the GOP during his 2010 run for Senate.

“Bring it on,” Peter Feaman, the party’s national committeeman, told a room of Republican activists. “That man sat at my house, in my kitchen, at my breakfast table and told me he was a Ronald Reagan Republican. OK, I’m putting my boots on, because guess what? You lied to me.”

Should the 56-year-old Crist run, he could become the first person to run for Florida governor as a Republican and as a Democrat. Crist only served one term before choosing to run for Senate instead of re-election.

Republicans, anticipating the switch, have been attacking him for months. As Crist campaigned with President Barack Obama and other Democrats during the fall, Republicans ran a television ad and issued scores of press releases pointing out his previous conservative positions.

“I really feel at home. A lot of it was inspired by what Democrats have stood for, and honestly, friends have told me most of my political life, ‘Charlie, you’re really a Democrat and you just don’t know it,” Crist said.

Crist was a moderate governor and met often with Democratic leaders. At dinners in the governor’s mansion, he includes both Republicans and Democrats at his head table. He endeared himself to the teachers union by vetoing a Republican priority bill that would have stripped teachers of tenure and based merit raises on test scores. He also won over many black leaders by championing civil rights issues, prompting one black lawmaker to describe him as the first black governor.

Since leaving the GOP, Crist, who called himself “the people’s governor” while in office, has criticized the party for going too far to the right. Crist has already criticized Scott for refusing to extend early voting despite pleas from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and other Democrats.

“The leadership of the party lately has gone off the cliff, I wasn’t comfortable enough,” Crist said. “What I love most about our state is our people ... I just have a feeling in my heart right now that leadership doesn’t appreciate that fact.”

Crist was elected governor in 2006 as a Republican, succeeding two-term Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. A popular governor and considered one of the best campaigners in the state, Crist used his charisma and feel-good messages to win over voters.

But many conservatives became disenchanted with Crist after he hugged President Barack Obama at a rally to push for the $787 billion stimulus package, which passed in 2009 with virtually no Republican support.

Although Crist was the early favorite for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010, conservatives began to rally around the bid of Marco Rubio in the 2010 GOP primary, prompting Crist’s independent bid.

If he runs for his old job, Crist will have better name recognition than any other Democrat seeking the governor’s seat, including former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost a hard-fought campaign to Scott.

Scott’s approval ratings haven’t come close to what Crist had in office. Scott, a former hospital chain CEO and tea party favorite who never ran for office before spending nearly $80 million of his and his family’s money to win election, isn’t considered a natural politician. He can be an awkward speaker, and it has taken a while for him to grow comfortable in the spotlight.

But that doesn’t mean Crist would have an easy time winning. During primary elections, only about 20 percent of voters turn out, and they are the most faithful in the party. Activists on both sides will remember the many elections in which they fought Crist, who often called himself a Ronald Reagan and Jeb Bush Republican.

“We’re going to be ready to play ball,” said Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry, noting that Crist previously praised former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, criticized Obama and held conservative views on abortion.

And it’s not easy switching parties after reaching political success. After nearly three decades as a Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter switched to the Democratic party rather than face a potentially uphill primary battle against a conservative challenger in 2010. Obama and Senate Democrats welcomed him, but Specter lost in that year’s Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak, who went on to lose in the fall to Republican Pat Toomey. Then there’s former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who won office as a Democrat and then lost his 1992 re-election bid as a Republican.

“The strong Democrats are the ones that vote in the non-presidential year, and they’re the ones that are most likely to have a problem with Crist,” said Democratic pollster David Beattie.

Beattie, however, said Crist has been smart about the transition because he got people used to the idea of him being a Democrat. After losing his independent bid for Senate, he began doing public events with Democrats. His wife, Carole, switched from Republican to Democrat. Then he began backing Democratic candidates in Florida, then Obama. And he spoke at last summer’s Democratic National Convention.

“There are a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, I thought he did that a long time ago,”’ Beattie said. “I don’t think he’s stopped campaigning over the last two years.”

———

Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington

 

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