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Democrats Gear Up for Governor's Race

October 24, 2013 - 6:00pm

His name isn't on the agenda, and he isn't a declared candidate for anything yet.

But Charlie Crist seems to have sucked the air out of the room at the Florida Democratic Party's annual conference before it's even begun.

In a game of cat-and-mouse with the media if not the party, Crist has remained mum about his intentions to run against incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, was until earlier this month expected to announce his candidacy before or at the Democrats' fundraiser this weekend at Disney Yacht & Beach Club Resort.

Now, it's widely believed that Crist will formally enter into the contest on Nov. 4 in his hometown of St. Petersburg.

And since he isn't an official candidate, the former governor won't be at the microphone at the Saturday night dinner featuring U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, state party Chairwoman Allison Tant and the headliner, former Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.

Also in the lineup Saturday night is Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, a former state Senate minority leader who's been traveling across Florida trying to drum up support in the shadow of the big donkey in the room, Crist.

Crist, who's shown up at many local Democratic meetings throughout Florida in recent months, will spend all of Saturday at the event, attending caucus meetings and glad-handing supporters in the lobby. And he will likely get the same rock star reaction he received at the Jefferson-Jackson fundraiser earlier this year, where Crist was mobbed by the crowd. It won't matter whether Crist has formally entered the race or not, predicted party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux.

"People don't care. It's more like the worst kept secret in the state of Florida," Arceneaux said of Crist's candidacy.

But others see it as a missed opportunity. Part of the purpose of the conference, aside from fundraising, is to fire up Democrats and inspire them to spread the enthusiasm back home, something that may have been lacking in the 2010 election when Alex Sink lost by a small margin to Scott because, some believe, too few voters in the Democratic stronghold of Broward County showed up at the polls.

"I'm shocked. I do not understand it. I think it's a mistake," said Screven Watson, a former party executive director. "You only have so many opportunities to talk to the base in that funny hat-wearing environment. This is it. If you have a star quarterback, let the star quarterback stand up and give a pep-rally speech to that base."

Crist, a masterful politician with a keen sense of timing and atmosphere, may have preferred to avoid speaking at a crowded event in order to preserve the impact of his solitary announcement next month.

"The party policy is, they're inviting announced candidates to speak. But he's planning on going and being available and talking to folks and shaking as many hands and taking as many pictures and listening to as many people as he can in the 30 hours that he's going to be on site," said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who's advising Crist.

But Watson disagreed.

"Look at 2010. Why did we lose against this guy? It was about turnout. It was about motivation. It was about the lack of pep rallies. It was about Broward staying home. And this could be '10 on both sides. Republicans may be disillusioned, too. But you don't miss opportunities to fire up the base, and walking around a convention between the booths and walking around the dinner is not playing to Charlie Crist's strengths," he said.

Whatever disappointment Democrats, paying up to $175 for tickets for different events, may experience likely won't last, said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.

"I think a lot of delegates signed up to go in the expectation he would make the announcement. But with so much going on right now, I don't know how much it's going to make a difference in the long term," she said. "If the purpose of the state convention is to fire up Democrats ahead of what promises to be a very competitive election, his not announcing does sort of dampen spirits at least temporarily."

State and national Republicans, who held a pre-Democratic event telephone conference with reporters on Thursday, are also focused on Crist.

Republican National Committee Co-Chair Sharon Day bitterly recalled raising money for Crist, who later refused to return contributions to donors after he left the GOP to run as an independent against Marco Rubio for the U.S. Senate in 2010.

"It's pretty pathetic that the state (party) is so backward looking and their farm team is so shallow that you have to go to a Charlie Crist who has been everything but the Wizard of Oz," Day said.

Democrats say the GOP's fixation on Crist proves that Republicans are scared of a popular populist, especially because Scott's popularity remains low among Florida voters.

"I think their obsession with partisanship is very blinding and out of touch with mainstream Floridians," said Dan Gelber, a former House minority leader who also served in the Senate. "They're losing sight of the fact that this isn't a primary. This is a general election and people like somebody who's a moderate and works across the aisle. And that's who Charlie Crist was, and that's who Charlie Crist will be as governor."

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