Democrats worry Charlie Crist could spell disaster as their nominee
Major Democratic financial backers, including trial lawyers and teachers, are gushing about Charlie Crist and his prospects for 2014.
Crist has not announced plans to run for governor again, but polls show him trouncing Republican Gov. Rick Scott by double digits.
The lifelong Republican-turned-Democrat at this point looks like he could grab the Democratic nomination without even a serious challenge.
But oh-so-quietly, veteran Democratic fundraisers and strategists across Florida worry about another scenario: A Charlie Crist train wreck that would ensure a second term for one of America's most vulnerable Republican governors.
The wariness and even downright hostility to Crist's candidacy is part of what's fueling speculation about Sen. Bill Nelson entering the race.
Scott may have anemic approval ratings, the thinking goes, but he will have tens of millions of dollars to turn his challenger into an unacceptable alternative. In Crist, who walked away from the governorship three years ago and is now aggressively reinventing himself, Scott would have loads of material to work with.
"It's a difficult sell for a candidate who was governor, who left governor to run to be the Republican senator, to now come back and say he wants to be the Democratic governor," said former Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith. "Charlie Crist may very well be able to explain that to people's satisfaction, but it becomes the focus of the campaign. … As soon as the election becomes focused on the challenger, rather than the incumbent, I think the challenger is in trouble."
Nelson, 70, has repeatedly dismissed the suggestion he might run for governor, but enough Democrats have spoken to him about it that he is considering it. He is said to be leaning against the idea but is not expected to make a final decision at least until the fall.
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2014 could be the Democrats' best opportunity to rebuild the party in a generation. But in taking on a governor vowing to spend $100 million on his re-election, some Democrats worry they will bet the house on Crist, 56, and wake up homeless after Election Day.
Angst about Crist's ability to beat Scott, 60, is common among Democratic money-raisers, but many are reluctant to say it publicly because they don't want to antagonize the candidate already poised to become standard-bearer for Florida Democrats. Those who raise concerns do it diplomatically.
"I know Gov. Crist has had a spiritual journey and has found many of his past positions are not positions he now feels comfortable with. However, that journey is a public record and it is something we will have to defend if he is our nominee," said Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fundraiser and lawyer from Fort Lauderdale.