TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Former Sen. Nan Rich is hoping a solid lifetime record as a Democrat, 28 months of campaigning and outreach to the hardcore grassroots of her party are enough to overcome the name recognition and millions of dollars raised by Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat former Gov. Charlie Crist in Tuesday's primary for governor.
Rich has been in the race longer than Crist has been a Democrat. She has put thousands of miles on her car instead of flying around the state in private planes donated by millionaire supporters. And there is no one who will question whether she has a stronger track record supporting the Democratic Party platform than Crist.
Yet she remains the underdog as most Democratic Party leaders have backed Crist, thinking his past popularity and reputation as a strong campaigner give them the best hope to beat Republican Gov. Rick Scott and win the governor's race for the first time since 1994.
Crist, who was a Republican when elected in 2006, has raised $19 million through his campaign and a political committee formed to elect him. Rich has raised just under $1 million through her campaign and a political committee.
Despite the odds, Rich has refused to back down.
"We need to have a true, progressive Democratic in the race running against a tea party Republican," Rich said. "We need to have a serious strong contrast. That's how we get our base out to vote."
Rich, 72, served in the House from 2000 to 2004 and then was elected to the Senate, where she served until 2012. She entered the governor's race in April 2012, eight months before Crist registered as a Democrat.
When she was first elected to the Legislature, she listed her occupation as professional volunteer, having served on a number of community service groups and boards.
She was the Senate Democratic leader during Scott's first two years in office and was a vocal opponent of many of his policies, from cuts to Medicaid, efforts to privatize prisons, a plan to drug-test welfare recipients and changes to public education. She has been a strong advocate for schools, child welfare and human services.
"She's honest. She's very clear in her goals," said Tom Conboy, 45, of West Palm Beach, who held a sign for Rich at a Florida Democratic Party fundraising dinner. "She's a solid Democrat. She represents the values I want to see in my next governor."
When people were focused on the 2012 presidential election, Rich began jumping in her car and driving seemingly countless miles around the state, visiting nearly every county while attending hundreds of events.
"We stopped counting at about 140,000 miles," Rich said. "It's hard to do it this way, to do the grassroots strategy, but it's the best way to meet the people, to learn what their needs are and to learn what their concerns are."
She said unlike Crist, she has never wavered on issues like keeping abortion legal, supporting gay rights and tightening gun laws.
"People can change their mind, but it's unusual for someone to change their mind 180 degrees on every issue," Rich said of Crist.
Crist has virtually ignored Rich, refusing to debate her while saying he needs to stay focused on Scott.
Rich also realizes the Florida Democratic Party, which has bought ads supporting Crist, hasn't been a big advocate of her campaign.
Former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democrats' nominee against Scott four years ago, praised Rich, but said she thinks Crist will win the primary and be the better candidate against Scott.
"Nan has made her case," Sink said. "She's somebody that we've known for a long time and she's a great Democrat and she's certainly qualified to be governor, but for whatever reason she hasn't been able to raise the resources needed to beat Rick Scott."
Rich hopes it's the party's most faithful Democrats that recognize that she better reflects their values and that they base their vote on research rather than television ads and campaign contributions.
"I'm on my own and that's fine," she said. "Sometimes the voters decide that the money is not the most important thing, that the issues that they care about are most important."
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