TALLAHASSEE — President Barack Obama's narrow victory over Mitt Romney in Florida last week has Democrats eager to seize the momentum to focus on the next hurdle: defeating Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Party leaders are thumping their chests that the triumph was a repudiation of the tea party, a signal that the GOP state party is out-of-touch and a blueprint for unseating Scott, the most unpopular governor in Florida in decades. But Democrats have one big problem: no standout candidate to challenge him.
"Working on that one,'' joked Scott Arceneaux, director of the Florida Democratic Party.
Their bench includes former legislators, failed former candidates, and a long list of mayors. Only state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, who is little known outside Tallahassee, has announced she is in the race.
Then, there is Charlie Crist.
The populist former governor is undergoing a metamorphosis that is substantial even by political standards. He left his party in 2010 as a candidate for U.S. Senate, ran without party affiliation and lost to Republican Marco Rubio.
As an independent, he has spent this election cycle campaigning aggressively for Obama, chastising his former party for an "extremist" agenda, and, in the last week, he has been accelerating criticism against Rick Scott.
When Scott refused to extend early voting hours as Crist had done in 2008, Crist tweeted "indefensible." When Scott defiantly defended his decision, Crist sent out a link to his statement and added: "I don't think the people would agree, Governor."
He told the Times/Herald that he thinks Scott and the GOP were engaged in voter suppression that "created a backlash" and he spent election night making the cable television rounds with a similar message.
"Rick Scott has been a bad governor who is out of touch with Floridians — as his handling of the early vote shows,'' Arceneaux said. "The governors race will start next week — if it hasn't already started — and we're going to push to use the momentum now into 2014."
With the exception of Rich, every contender for the Democratic nomination has been non-committal. The list includes former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Alex Sink, the former chief financial officer who lost by a narrow 62,000 votes to Scott in 2010, and has spent the last two years developing a think tank that grooms young leaders in business and government.
But only Crist has been attacked already by Republicans.
During the Democratic National Convention, where Crist gave a speech endorsing Obama, the Florida Republican Party ran an ad that showed him calling himself a "Jeb Bush Republican" and "as conservative as you can get."
Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry posts regular missives on the party's blog and Twitter feed, and uses every move by Crist as a new opportunity to swipe at him.
When Crist endorsed Democrat Keith Fitzgerald for Congress against Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, Curry wrote: "Another day, another friend betrayed by Charlie Crist and his blind ambition."
Democrats have been vocally divided about Crist's newfound attention to their party. Some see no advantage to steering party resources to defend Crist against an onslaught of expected and vicious attacks from the GOP when they have their own battles to refer to against him. Others, mostly those working with the president's campaign, have been more friendly.
Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said he welcomes Crist into their church, but "that doesn't mean we necessarily make you minister."
Arceneaux said that Crist isn't even a Democrat and first must decide his own political future.
"We fully expect there will be a Democratic primary,'' he said. "We'll cross that bridge in due time."
"I've made no definitive plans,'' Crist told the Times/Herald last week, after returning home from Obama's victory party in Chicago. "For me personally, and for most people who follow politics closely, it's a good time to take a deep breath and enjoy your family. I think maybe after the first of the year, after the holidays, we'll see what the future holds."
The bigger test will be who can raise the money to challenge the governor. Scott spent $73 million of his own money on his first campaign and has raised $4.8 million for his political committee this cycle.
Scott may be the most vulnerable incumbent since Democrat Lawton Chiles took out Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in 1990. But, Arceneaux said, "Rick Scott is not an easy target. With the financial resources that he has brought to bear, we are going to continue to be at a fundraising disadvantage."
Crist's fundraising prowess was legendary and, although he works for one of the state's most powerful law firms, Morgan & Morgan, there is no guarantee he can match his past success.
"Their resources are endless,'' Crist told the Times/Herald. "Who spends 70 million? Anybody who was thinking about that is factoring that in or you're an idiot."
Crist, however, believes that the party's self-inflicted wounds and Scott's inability to reach the moderate middle make the governor vulnerable.
"Florida is a very purple place,'' he said noting that the party's "hard right stuff" antagonized voters. "The people of our country have a great wisdom. When they see something going off kilter, they want to get our country back on track."
Crist may be a non-candidate, but he is doing nothing to downplay his prospects. He offers up a ready list of what he considers Scott's biggest offenses:
The decision to cancel the high speed rail: "$2.4 billion, tens of thousands of jobs in a struggling economy;"
The governor's failure to accept federal stimulus money: "we are a donor state; it was morally right to take that money;"
The pending standoff over health care reform: "defies common sense."
And Scott's decision to make no apology for the state's botched voting process: "voter suppression ... At a minimum, I know it's not voter encouragement."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]