TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Charlie Crist has been running against Republican Gov. Rick Scott ever since Crist formally announced he wanted his old job back. But to face off against Scott in a highly anticipated governor-vs.-governor grudge match this fall, Crist has to win the Democratic nomination first.
The one-time GOP governor is dismissive of his Democratic primary opponent, former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, refusing to debate her and rarely, if ever, mentioning Rich, except to offer polite praise when put on the spot.
"I realize we have a primary. I'm looking forward to it. I hope a lot of Democrats get out to the polls --- it's important --- and exercise their precious right to vote. I hope to have earned it," Crist, who entered the race a year to the day before the Nov. 4 general election, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Crist and a political committee backing him have amassed nearly $20 million, a fraction of the $100 million that Scott and his supporters have pledged to raise --- and spend --- on defeating Crist, who was elected as the GOP governor in 2006 and served a single term before losing a 2010 U.S. Senate bid as an independent. Crist, who was defeated by Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, later became a Democrat.
"I don't have the luxury to take my eye off the ball. As you know, I'm running against a man who has said he will spend upwards of $100 million on this race. So I have to be focused on that and the challenge that it presents, and I am focused on that," Crist, 58, said when asked about his refusal to debate Rich.
"Debates are a part of the Democratic process. If you call yourself 'The People's Governor' and polls show an overwhelming number of Democratic primary voters want to have a debate, then you should listen to the people," she said.
Many expected Rich, whose campaign war chest pales in comparison to Crist's, to drop out of the race before the Aug. 26 primary. Some powerful Democrats even pressured her to do so. But Rich, a 72-year-old grandmother and former national president of the National Council of Jewish Women, refused to bow out.
She's crisscrossed the state on a shoestring budget, making her pitch to base voters at more than 350 events, many of them local Democratic club meetings.
Crist, meanwhile, travels on private planes from one event to another, and on Wednesday planned to launch a three-day tour on an old school bus to drive home the message that Scott oversaw cuts to education during the Republican's first two years in office. It's no surprise polls show that education, also at the top of Rich's list of talking points, is the major issue for Florida voters.
The bus tour, going from Tallahassee to Jacksonville and later to Orlando, the Tampa Bay area and Miami, comes as early voting is already underway. When asked if the tour was geared toward the primary or the general election, Crist said, "Probably a little of both but obviously it comes before the primary."
But then he launched into an attack on Scott's record.
"I think it's important to get out and visit with people. On this tour primarily we'll be talking about education and how important it is to properly fund education in Florida, and that Rick Scott has failed to do so by slashing education funding by $1.3 billion in his first year, cutting $300 million from higher education in his second year," Crist said. "Florida needs a governor who will refocus on education and our children."
Hearing Crist hammer Scott on education makes Rich see red. She criticized Crist for supporting school vouchers that allowed children in failing schools to use taxpayer money to attend private schools, a cornerstone of former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's education reforms. Crist later said he regretted supporting the voucher program.
"My position hasn't changed. I've always been against vouchers," Rich said. "The bottom line is we've had three governors who have bought into the same public-education reform that has undermined our education system."
Some Democrats already casting ballots in the race for governor could face a dilemma.
Should they fill in the ballot oval for Rich, whose Democratic stripes are indisputable but who might have little chance of defeating Scott? Or should they back Crist, a latecomer to the party but a consummate, charismatic populist who many Democrats believe is their best chance of ousting Scott, who has been plagued by low approval numbers?
But for most political observers, there is little doubt that Crist will emerge the winner in the primary.
"I think it's going to be the biggest yawner and the only thing really to look for is what is the margin for Crist," said Screven Watson, a political consultant and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "This is not the first, second or third thing on anybody's mind."
Turnout is expected to be low, especially because there are no high-profile congressional primaries or presidential contests during the mid-term election.
Rich thinks low turnout will boost her chances because base Democratic voters --- the ones who typically show up at the polls for primaries --- are more likely to support a lifelong Democrat than Crist, who switched parties less than two years ago.
"People should be able to change their minds. The problem is when you change your mind 180 degrees on every core issue that is important to Democrats," Rich said in a recent telephone interview. "It's hard for people to believe that's not done in a way that has to do with getting elected. What are your core values?"
Crist, who served as education commissioner and attorney general before getting elected governor, recites advice he received from friend and former House Minority Leader Dan Gelber when asked how he can win over progressives.
"He said, simply ask them to judge you by your deeds. By what you did as attorney general by fighting utility company rate increases. By what you did as education commissioner in fighting for teacher pay raises. By what you did as governor and vetoing the ultrasound bill on women and SB 6 against teachers. Just remind them of what you did when you served in office and how you fought for the little guy and the little gal and consumers and civil rights as attorney general. All of those things will be remembered and you just need to ask people to be fair and judge you by your deeds and your sense of fairness for all," Crist said.
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