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Charlie Crist's stance on candidate debates is 'grand hypocrisy'

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Charlie Crist's coronation as the top Democrat in the state is fast approaching.

The assumption is he will breeze through the primary in another three weeks, and officially become the liberal voter's answer to Gov. Rick Scott in November.

His ascension to the top of his new party's ticket has seemed a fait accompli for so long, it's easy to forget that he has done very little to actually earn it.

It took Crist himself to remind us last week.

When it was announced that Scott had agreed to three statewide debates this fall, Crist immediately released a statement blasting the governor for not taking part in additional debates. A "disservice to voters'' is the way Crist phrased it.

To be honest, I'm baffled as to what factors might have led to this statement. It could have been an abundance of enthusiasm. It could have been excess hubris. It may have simply been a case of sudden-onset stupid.

Though the actual reasons are up for grabs, the result is not:

It was grand hypocrisy.

For months, Crist has ignored calls to debate his lesser-known Democratic rival Nan Rich. He was too busy, too focused on beating Scott to set aside even one night to talk issues with a respected state legislator who entered the race long before he had.

And now there is no campaign spin imaginable that will excuse the way Crist has ducked Rich. It doesn't matter that he was the frontrunner and had more to lose. It doesn't matter that he might have worried about tacking too far left in a primary.

Thanks to his "disservice to voters'' line, Crist has reminded us all that we deserve a chance to hear candidates in (relatively) unscripted moments. And his refusal to debate Rich was a disservice to 4.5 million registered Democrats in Florida.

I suppose, if you are an end-justifies-the-means sort of person, you can argue that ignoring Rich was the prudent way to go. Crist, after all, was the party's best shot to take down Scott once Sen. Bill Nelson decided to stay in Washington.

The problem is Crist doesn't have enough capital among Democrats to anoint himself the chosen one so brazenly. Too many voters are wary of his past views. Too many worry that his embrace of the party is further evidence of his opportunistic ways.

The complete disregard of Rich's candidacy showed a certain lack of humility on Crist's part. It offered no self-awareness that he was the one who arrived late to their party.

Mostly, it meant he missed an opportunity to reach out to doubtful Democrats.

Crist will have plenty of time to attack Scott in the next few months. Heck, that's probably all he will do. And a sizable portion of the electorate will show up in November with an anybody-but-Scott gleam in their eyes.

But if he had engaged Rich in debate, Crist could have shown he is the pragmatist that Democrats have lacked in statewide elections. He could have positioned himself as more conservative than Rich, and more progressive than Scott.

He could have used a relatively risk-free debate to rally the Democrats who lose interest in nonpresidential elections.

Crist can already count on plenty of voters willing to abandon Scott.

He should be looking for more who are willing to follow him.

Charlie Crist's stance on candidate debates is 'grand hypocrisy' 08/01/14 [Last modified: Sunday, August 3, 2014 12:59am]

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