ORLANDO, Fla. - Hundreds of Florida Democrats fawned over former Gov. Charlie Crist this weekend at their annual conference as the onetime "Reagan Republican" campaigned relentlessly, receiving a hero's welcome more than a week before he officially announces his candidacy for governor.
The Florida Democratic Party's conference gave Crist, who wasn't an official speaker, a platform to do what he seems to love best -- pose for photographs, whisper words of encouragement and linger long enough with admirers to create a logjam wherever he went.
"He has the same charisma as John Kennedy, that same undefineable thing," said Mary MacKenzie, a Pinellas Park delegate who said she shook JFK's hand twice as a young girl and gets the same thrill from her interactions with Crist decades later. "He makes you feel like you are the only one in the world, like you really matter."
Down the hall, gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, a lifelong Democrat and former state lawmaker who served as Senate Minority Leader, didn't get nearly the rock-star reception as Crist, who abandoned the GOP to run as an independent to avoid a showdown against Republican Marco Rubio in a failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Crist announced he had switched his registration to Democrat at a Christmas event last year at the White House with President Obama.
Most of the speeches at Disney's Yacht & Beach Club Resort were focused on defeating incumbent Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who topped Democratic opponent Alex Sink by less than 1 percentage point three years ago.
For some party loyalists, former Republican Gov. Crist poses a problem.
"He's very personable. But I'm a skeptic. So I'm in the back of my head thinking what's the motivation and how is he going to profit off the constituents?" said Lois Porcella, who lives in Palm Beach County. "It really comes down to the core philosophy of the party and how that candidate is projecting those principles to the voters. I understand that the end goal is to defeat the Republicans. But still you can't give up your center being."
Rich called the race a choice between "substance and style" and said Democrats are at a turning point.
"This primary is going to be about what kind of Democrats we are. About a year out, Democrats always start to think about we need to have a conservative Democrat and that we can't afford to have a progressive. I beg to differ with them. We have elected Barack Obama twice in this state, an African-American man twice who has progressive principles," Rich said. "I believe there's a growing progressive movement in the state…I'm finding it as I travel. People are excited. They want a Democrat that has the core Democratic values and principles. That's what I'm going to present."
But being shut out of the governor's mansion since Jeb Bush was elected in 1998 has made many Democrats more pragmatic. And national Democrats are already organizing with an eye on Crist, who will formally announce his candidacy Nov. 4 in his hometown of St. Petersburg and who has already been traveling around the country to drum up support.
"Whatever issues people want to bring up about Charlie Crist, he is a consummate politician. He knows his people. As a Democrat, I will say that I think he did a lot of fair things for the state of Florida in terms of education. I think we would be way farther ahead in health care in Florida if he were governor. And I think he can beat Rick Scott. And we need a candidate who can beat Rick Scott," Bonnie Sklaren of Gulfport said.
Crist said the delegates have shown him overwhelming kindness.
"I think they see my heart and understand. They see what the leadership of the Republican Party has become," Crist said. "I'm where my heart is and I feel very at home. And I think they have welcomed the convert and I'm grateful."
But Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry, who set up shop in a pub in the hotel where the Democrats are meeting, scoffed at Crist's conversion.
"He's just an opportunist. He's ineffective when it comes to governing and he's an opportunist when it comes to his own political career," Curry said.
Addressing the Democratic black caucus in an overflowing meeting room, Crist spoke of the racism Jackie Robinson encountered on the baseball field. Robinson had to exert his strength by turning the other cheek, said Crist, who has been attacked relentlessly by Florida Republicans.
"These people coming after you like that, they're creating sympathy for you. Because you're that good. You stand straight. That's why you're here. That's why you need to join. That's why you need to make a difference. I don't care who it is. I don't care what part of the state you're from. 2014 is important. We're coming. We're coming. Barack did it twice in Florida because of you. Get ready. It's coming," Crist said before being crushed by black supporters.
Outside, delegate Gloria Goolsby of North Lauderdale embraced Crist and burst into tears. Crist shepherded her away from the crowd as Goolsby tearfully told Crist about her son, who was released from prison four years ago but could not find a job because he is a convicted felon. As governor, Crist was instrumental in making it easier for felons to have their rights, including the right to vote, restored after their sentences were complete. In one of his first actions after taking office, Scott and the Cabinet reversed the process and instead imposed a minimum five-year delay before felons can begin to have their rights restored.
With his arm around Goolsby, Crist called her son and left a message.
"I want to let you know you're not alone. We're going to do something about this," Crist said.