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POLITICS: PennAve

How Democrats came to like Charlie Crist

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Here's how well Charlie Crist's conversion to the Democratic Party has been received in Florida: Even the man he beat as a Republican in 2006 now backs him.

At a rally Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis praised his former opponent.

"The reason I stand here today is Charlie Crist," said Davis, as reported by the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "As our governor, Charlie Crist will stand up for equality and respect for men, women of every creed and color, gay, straight, immigrant, [Florida] cracker."

Democratic leaders have been in overdrive in recent days trying to persuade Florida voters that Crist is the right man to defeat Republican Gov. Rick Scott and recapture the governor's mansion for Democrats for the first time in two decades.

It's been an unusual road to this point. After a long political career as a Republican, Crist lost the GOP Senate nomination to Marco Rubio in 2010, then ran as an independent, coming in second. In 2012, he switched parties to become a Democrat and was welcomed with open arms.

Some Democratic leaders remain privately skeptical of Crist's Democratic bona fides, but they've given him full-throated support, helping propel him to a 50 percentage-point primary win Tuesday over state Sen. Nan Rich.

Even Rich has joined the bandwagon, saying at that same Fort Lauderdale rally that Crist had his vote and that the party was unified against Scott.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents South Florida in Congress and is the dean of Florida Democrats, said she trusts Crist will remain loyal to the party and uphold its values.

“I do. I trust Charlie Crist to be a strong voice for working families, to be a strong voice, as he has said, [as] the people’s governor,” she said in an interview on MSNBC.

Wasserman Schultz added that while she didn’t always agree with Crist during his tenure as a Republican governor, “I thought that some of the things he did… were against his own party’s interests and that angered his own party.”

Crist, 58, was once a skyrocketing GOP star and even was whispered as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2008. But his popularity began to crater, in part because he embraced President Obama's stimulus bill, which was unpopular with Tea Party voters who backed Rubio.

That has now come full circle, though, as Crist has become more popular with Democrats, especially because they view him as electable.

“They’re going for the bigger picture, which is, we’ve got to win this race. We haven’t had the [governorship] in 20 years,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor who has followed Sunshine State politics for decades. “He’s their nominee and they’re not going to show any kind of wavering on it, and they’re just going to assume that for the average Democratic voter that the greater good is beating the incumbent (more) than loving Crist.”

Polls show the race between Crist and Scott is essentially even.

MacManus said that for Crist to win, Democrats must convince skeptical voters in their base to embrace — or at least accept him. But a bevy of negative campaign ads by both sides isn't helping matters, she said. And with voter turnout for Tuesday’s Democratic primary historically low, Crist and his party face a challenge to gin up enthusiasm.

“You already have a jaded public. Put on top of that a highly negative campaign which is just competing back-to-back with slash-and-burn ads, and you wonder can they break through, and can they break through to independents and energize their base?” she said. “That’s the challenge for either one of them.”

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Sean Lengell

Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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