ORLANDO, Fla. - Charlie Crist still hasn't declared that he's challenging Florida Gov. Rick Scott in next year's election.
But the growing expectation that Crist will run against the incumbent governor loomed over a big fundraising dinner and meeting of state Republicans held at the posh Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World.
There were jokes about Crist, there were warnings about Crist, and there was sharp criticism of the one-time Republican governor who is now a registered Democrat.
Crist was mentioned more than President Barack Obama despite the ongoing federal government shutdown and wrangling over Obama's health care overhaul that has divided Republicans at the national level.
The focus on Crist comes as some polls show Crist winning a head-to-head matchup with Scott. During his three years in office, Scott has failed to claim the support of a majority of Floridians in independent polls.
Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry said that "any poll with any Democrat in it right now is pretty irrelevant."
But Curry himself called Crist "unfit to govern" and stressed to rank-and-file members to remain united behind a message that Scott has helped turn the state's economy around.
"The Democrats want this state badly and we have to remain focused," Curry said. "This election is going to be won on the record: the very clear record of Rick Scott and the Republican Legislature and we have to preach that message. So don't be distracted."
Crist, reached by email, did not respond to Curry's comments.
Republicans have controlled state government since 1998, but Democrats have fared well in the past two presidential election years. Obama won Florida in both 2008 and 2012, and Florida Democrats picked up seats in Congress last year.
But GOP leaders cite their own advantages heading into 2014: disorganization within the Florida Democratic Party as well as a strong money advantage. GOP leaders several times cited missteps by the Democratic Party, including the decision by the party to back a candidate for statewide office who pulled out of the race days after it was revealed he had filed for bankruptcy.
Curry said the Republican National Committee is already pouring resources into the state to prepare for the 2014 elections. Right now the state party has nearly $10 million in cash in its state and federal accounts.
Let's Get to Work - a political committee controlled by Scott - has already amassed a sizable war chest. Since it was revived in the summer of 2011, the committee has raised more than $18 million and spent less than $2 million. More than $13 million of that has been raised since January of this year, including a huge haul in September that includes a $500,000 check from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a $250,000 check from Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But veteran Republicans acknowledged that Crist - who has run for statewide public office five times since 1998 -had plenty of name recognition and knows how to run in the large and diverse state.
"Charlie is a formidable campaigner," said former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who was Crist's campaign manager in 2006 but is now backing Scott. "It's what's he does best. But what this governor does best is govern. It's not going to be a personality contest."
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam - who is considered a future candidate for governor - took shots at Crist and said Republicans had previously seen and heard Crist on repeated occasions call himself a "Ronald Reagan" Republican.
"We all have seen him long enough to know at the end of the day Charlie Crist is focused on Charlie Crist and the state deserves more than cotton candy answers for the problems we face," Putnam said.
But Putnam joined the chorus of Republicans who preached staying united headed into next year. During a breakfast speech Putnam pointed out how, until 1994, Democrats controlled Florida politics during the 20th Century. He insisted after his speech that he was not worried that Republicans will experience a letdown next year.
"We need to make sure we don't let our guard down and take for granted the majorities we enjoy," Putnam said.
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