The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charlie Crist’s message to Democrats: I’m just like Barack Obama

In early 2009, President Obama arrived in Florida to tout his stimulus plan. But it was a hug that stole the show.

Then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's embrace of the president became a kiss of death for his Senate bid. Nearly five years later, Crist is hugging Obama again — in a different way. Now a Democrat running for his old job, Crist has assembled a campaign roster chock full of former Obama hands. His apparent wager: 1) Some of Obama's success in the the perennial swing state (he won it twice) can be replicated this fall and 2) Advertising a team of Obama alumni is a good message to send to Democrats.

The latest Obama alumni to join Crist's team are Jim Messina and Ted Goff. Messina managed Obama's reelection bid while Goff directed the campaign's digital strategy.

Goff will be doing digital outreach for Crist. Messina will serve as a general adviser. It's not clear yet how heavily either will be involved in the campaign.

The two are joining an orbit that already includes other marquee Obama veterans like pollster John Anzalone, media strategist Jim Margolis and former state director Steven Schale.

"I think the off-year elections are different from the presidential elections, but I think what the governor has done is he has brought together a dream team of talent to figure out how to put together a coalition to win the governor's race," said Crist spokesman Kevin Cate, also a former Obama campaign aide.

Crist has gone to great lengths to quickly earn his stripes as a Democrat. The crush of Obama aides rallying to his side may, to an extent, be a recognition of the groundwork he laid in advance. It also appears to be a sign that Crist believes the Obama approach to Florida can work, even in a non-presidential year.

"In 2012 no state got more time, attention, money and organizational focus than Florida," said Margolis. "Obviously that pays dividends for us now."

The flow of Obama talent also reflects the high stakes of the purple state contest: This is the governor's race to get involved in this year. Finally, for a candidate who spent most of his career as a Republican, Crist has work to do to win over skeptical Democrats. It helps him in that regard to tether himself to the circle of advisers who are fresh off helping the Democratic Party's leader win another term in the White House.

After leaving the GOP to become an independent, Crist won a lot of good will from Democrats for lending the president's reelection effort a helping hand. He gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention and campaigned in Florida with Obama. He was an ambassador to the sliver of swing, moderate voters both Obama and Mitt Romney pursued.

Shortly after the election, Crist became a Democrat.

But his alliance with some of the top figures from Obama's circle is a striking position for a candidate who was dogged in his last campaign for being too cozy with the president. The image of Obama and Crist embracing one another was a powerful visual aide for the anti-Crist forces, who were trying to fuel the perception the governor simply wasn't sufficiently conservative.

It worked. Just ask now-Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Crist's primary opponent.

Crist's adversary this time is Gov. Rick Scott (R), whose rocky first term has drawn criticism from both his left and right. Scott is one of the most vulnerable governors facing reelection this year.

But that doesn't mean Crist is a shoo-in. Scott is a tenacious campaigner expected to raise huge sums of cash. And Republicans are eager to paint Crist as a political opportunist. They view him as a troubled candidate who can be defeated, even as he brings to bear assets like statewide name recognition and a deep network of loyalists.

"I almost want to offer a mass for the Obama advisers coming to work for Crist," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist. "They're going to need all the divine intervention they can get. Going from advising Obama to advising Crist is such a steep drop, I hope they are taking vertigo medication."

While elements of Obama's Florida strategy may boost Crist, the president's standing in the state may be a problem for him. Obama's approval rating stood at 40 percent in a November Quinnipiac University survey, matching his all-time low in the state. While the president's image has bounced back a bit nationally since that lows of the troubled Obamacare rollout last fall, it remains to be seen whether he will be more albatross than asset in November.

"Crist's strength comes from his reputation and performance in the state, not the president's," said Margolis.

The race between Crist and Scott has long had the makings of the most expensive and intense governor's races in the country. The addition of more key architects of Obama's reelection win into the fold has upped the ante.


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