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Charlie Crist, Democratic front-runner?

Former Florida governor Charlie Crist completed his transformation from Republican to Democrat last week, and by doing so, took a step closer to running for governor as a Democrat in 2014, a possibility that has been openly speculated on by political observers in the Sunshine State.

If Crist runs, he’d have a good shot at winning the Democratic nomination because of the groundwork he laid during the 2012 campaign, and the party’s relatively thin bench in the state.

(Alan Diaz -- AP)

Let’s take a closer look at each reason. 

After it became clear to Crist that he couldn't defeat now-Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in a 2010 Senate primary, he left the GOP to run as an independent, only to lose in the general elecion. He’s been moving leftward ever since: He spoke at the Democratic National Convention earlier this year and even stumped with President Obama. In the eyes of some Democrats, that scored him some points with party loyalists. 

“He was eagerly looking for opportunities to help get President Obama reelected,” said Steve Schale, Obama’s 2008 Florida state director and a senior adviser to the campaign there in 2012. “There is definitely good will that will exist for him.”

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), the newly minted chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, lavished Crist with praise over the weekend, even as he underscored that the DGA isn’t taking sides – at least not yet.

"He was hugely helpful in electing president Obama," Shumlin told C-SPAN. "He's an incredibly capable leader. Now, I want to be clear, as DGA chair, we don't take sides before we know that we have one single candidate as opposed to a primary. But having said that, everybody knows he was a great governor, led Florida with tremendous vision and is focused on jobs and job creation. So if he's a candidate, we would welcome him to the club."

Another reason Crist would have a good shot at the nomination is that the Florida Democratic bench isn’t stocked with a long list of stars-in-waiting. Strategists in both parties generally agree that the one potential contender who would be able to match Crist’s name recognition and financial might is Alex Sink, the 2010 gubernatorial nominee.

“[Crist] and Sink would be the front-runners,” said Democrat Den Gelber, who worked with Crist as state House minority leader, and is considering a gubernatorial run of his own. 

Added Schale, who has not decided who he would support for governor: “I think [Crist] has a lot of advantages if he decides to run. That being said, I don’t think anybody can count out Alex Sink.”

Sink lost to now-Gov. Rick Scott (R) by just a point in 2010, a year that was good for Republicans across the map. The former state chief financial officer was dramatically outspent by the self-funding Scott, who dished out over $70 million for his campaign. Sink has kept up a high-profile by launching a think tank last year.

If both Crist and Sink run, an epic primary could be in the offing. Crist would likely underscore the moderate policies he spearheaded as governor, while Sink and her allies could point to Crist’s more conservative tendencies. For example, Crist once said, “I’m about as conservative as you can get,” one of the many clips an opponent could play over and over in attack ads. 

If Sink opts against a run, there would be a pretty clear path to the nomination for Crist. And barring a surprise self-funder or other upstart, it would be very difficult for opponents to keep pace with him.

“Florida is such an expensive state to run in. It’s just so big, and so diverse, and the media markets are so divided and expensive. There is almost a cost of entry,” said Gelber.

Republicans, meanwhile, can be expected to ding Crist -- potentially both in the Democratic primary and the general election -- by pointing time and again to his dramatic political about face.

“Let’s not romanticize this. Crist is not guided by principle, but rather by opportunism. What's best for Charlie,” said Republican strategist Ana Navarro, an early supporter of Rubio’s in 2010.

Scott is potentially vulnerable in 2014. His disapproval rating stood at 50 percent in a September Mason-Dixon poll. Crist held a two-point lead over Scott in the poll, with Sink leading the governor by eight points.

But while Crist may raise some Democrats’ hopes about unseating Scott in two years, Navarro suggested he may be just what the doctor ordered for the Republican governor.

“For all the issues we may have with Rick Scott, nothing can make him as popular and unifying to Florida Republicans, as the idea of going up against Crist. [The] only thing better than beating Charlie once, will be beating him twice,” she said.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.



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