It was a Sally Field moment in Florida on Tuesday night: They like him. They really like him.
Charlie Crist took three-quarters of the vote in Florida’s Democratic primary on Tuesday, leaving no doubt that his new party has accepted the former Republican governor as their standard bearer to unseat current GOP Gov. Rick Scott. His opponent was Nan Rich, a liberal and former minority leader in the state Senate. But the Democratic political establishment decided early on that Crist was their best shot at beating Scott, and coalesced behind him.
Now, the question now is how much enthusiasm the party's grassroots will put behind him.
“The single-biggest obstacle to Crist this year is voter turnout history,” political editor Adam C. Smith wrote Tuesday night in the Tampa Bay Times. “In 2002, 40 percent of Democrats turned out to vote and 46 percent of Republicans turned out. In 2006, 40 percent of Democrats showed up, and 45 percent of Republicans. In 2010, Scott won when just 38 percent of Democrats voted and 46 percent of Republicans did.”
The key area to watch is Southeast Florida. It's an area potentially rich with Democratic votes, but the party's recent candidates have underperformed there. Turnout in the area on Tuesday was light. That may be a reflection of the fact that there was little suspense about the outcome of the race, or the fact that Crist did not begin gearing up his ground operation until this summer. But it's a dynamic he'll need to improve on, dramatically, by November.
Crist insists he does not plan to repeat the mistake of 2010 nominee Alex Sink, who paid little attention to that section of the state. "We have a lot of offices in South Florida. That's not an accident. It's very important to have the base energized," Crist said in an interview four days before the primary. He added that Tuesday's vote would "tell a lot, that things are going well and that Democrats realize I'm really who I've always been."
Though his home — and political base — is the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, Crist has rented a condo in Fort Lauderdale, where he held his victory celebration on Tuesday night.
Yet despite the easy primary win, he now faces a steep challenge: Where polls a year ago showed Crist ahead of Scott by double digits, most now have him trailing slightly after a barrage of negative ads by the incumbent. Theirs is expected to be the most expensive race in the country this year -- and Scott will have a big financial advantage.