TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Democrats consider Gov. Rick Scott to be one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbent governors facing re-election next year, which gives them hope that they can put one of their own in the governor's office for the first time since January 1999.
But who will challenge him?
Former state Sen. Nan Rich is in the race, but no one seems to have noticed. So Democrats see their greatest hope as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who says he's not planning to run; former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who became a Democrat less than five months ago; and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost to Scott in 2010.
Meanwhile, Scott has the stage to himself, traveling to the state's largest media markets to tout teacher raises and projecting himself as a pro-education governor without an opponent to remind people that in his first year he cut school funding by more than $1 billion. And don't be surprised if the governor who won office as a far-right, tea party conservative gets on his private plane and makes his case as an environmental governor when he signs an Everglades restoration bill.
"We're looking at a year out, but nobody's making a move. It's like a basketball game where someone is sitting back with the ball and nobody's moving toward him," said Screven Watson, a Democratic political strategist. "We're giving him, basically, this summer to go out and lay the predicate for why he should be re-elected and that's very dangerous."
Democrats are banking on Scott's poor approval ratings and hope that voters don't forget that his first year in office he was out of step with Florida's more moderate voters when he announced his first budget proposal at a tea party rally. Beating him, though, won't be easy. Scott will be incredibly well financed, he's increasingly moving more toward the middle on some issues important to voters and he has the power of incumbency.
Scott, a multimillionaire who founded a hospital chain, spent more than $70 million of his own money to win in 2010 when he started as a political unknown. Being in the governor's seat has afforded him the opportunity to ask others for money this time.
"Rick Scott's a winner, he's one of the hardest working people that I've ever met, he's working hard for Floridians right now and I can tell you when we're in campaign mode, there ain't nobody going to be able to beat Rick Scott," said Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry. He said Scott is going to have "Tons and tons and tons of money. Millions upon millions of dollars. He's got a robust fundraising effort."
Privately, both sides see Nelson as the Democrats' best hope of beating Scott. Nelson, who will be 71 before the election, says he's not planning to run. The third-term senator just finished a campaign and the longer he stays in the Senate, the higher he rises in the chamber's ranks. Still, Democrat fundraisers and the party elite have put pressure on him knowing just how important the race is to a party that has been insignificant in Tallahassee since the 1990s.
"Nelson has said no. He hasn't said `hell no,' and there's a difference in my book," Watson said.
Then there's Crist, who became a Democrat more than two years after leaving the GOP and unsuccessfully running for Senate in 2010 as an independent. Before the final conversion, Crist spent much of the previous two years building credibility with the Democratic Party - contributing to Nelson's re-election campaign, endorsing and campaigning with President Barack Obama and helping other Democrats seek congressional and legislative office.
Crist didn't return a call to his cell phone, but he has said he is thinking about it.
Crist has star power, people like him and he is one of the best campaigners in the state. He has embraced the populist label others have given him and he is a strong fundraiser. Many political observers are assuming he'll be the Democratic nominee, and that might be exactly what Republicans want.
The state Republican Party has a thick file to use against Crist. They have every press release he issued as a Republican candidate, every robocall he ever made in support of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and then-President George W. Bush. They can point at a long list of positions where Crist has taken one stand as a Republican and the exact opposite as an independent or Democrat, from gay marriage to Obama's health care overhaul.
"He's got a long record of defending very conservative positions and values over the years, and that's in his own words," Curry said.
Scott is already making the case that Florida's economy went from great to very bad under Crist and is now on the rebound, but he can't take all of the credit.
Florida is following national trends and an argument can be made that Crist isn't responsible for Florida's recession, yet voters may not see it that way.
"When Charlie walks up to them, shakes their hand and looks them in the eye, many of them are going to say `I was one of the 800,000 jobs that was lost on your watch.' It's pretty simple," Curry said. "People were moving out of Florida on his watch, homes were going into foreclosure, unemployment went from 3 percent and change to over 11 percent and a lot of Floridians felt that."
As likable as Crist is, Scott will spend tens of millions of dollars tearing down his reputation. As well as the economy and changing positions, there's no doubt Scott and the GOP will use guilt by association tactics by pointing to several supporters who are now in prison on a variety of felony convictions, from Jim Greer, Crist's hand-picked state GOP chairman who plead guilty to stealing from the party, to Scott Rothstein, a friend and fundraiser now serving a 50-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges.
"It's going to be nasty - like nothing we've ever seen. They want to kill this guy," Watson said. "I'm not as convinced as some people are that Scott's so weak and so vulnerable that Charlie's entry into the race spells defeat for the governor."
Then there's former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who was the Democrats' 2010 nominee. She lost to Scott by 61,550 votes, or 1.2 percentage points in 2010, a year when Florida Democrats were trounced in other races. Scott failed to earn a majority of all votes cast, winning with 48.9 percent of the vote.
After the death of her husband, Bill McBride, in December, Sink sounded as if she didn't have the heart to run again. This month, though, she sounded as if she's giving serious consideration. She said she is in a "fact-gathering stage" and met with supporters last week who flew to Tampa to encourage her to run.
"Every single day I can't go anywhere without people asking me to run, but it takes more than just that. It's evaluating, putting together a team, putting together money. And at the end of the day, it's a gut-check, fire-in-the-belly decision," Sink said.
Sink, a former bank executive who now runs a foundation designed to help entrepreneurs younger than 40 grow their businesses, would be a better match against Scott if the economy is the main issue.
If Scott remains unpopular, her goal would be keeping her 2010 supporters while convincing a relatively small number of voters that they made a mistake the last time around.
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