COCONUT CREEK — When introducing Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist to a left-leaning crowd Wednesday, Democratic state Rep. Ari Porth joked that he had brought Crist some rugelah so he could have a taste of Broward.
But Crist didn't need the little traditional Jewish pastry to help him bond with the gray-haired, Star of David-wearing crowd. He knew his audience, talking up Israel and vowing to protect Social Security.
The several hundred seniors who gathered at the Wynmoor condo complex theater in Coconut Creek Wednesday clapped repeatedly for Crist and sometimes giving him a standing ovation.
Crist sees politically fertile ground in places like Wynmoor, and his campaign is determined to grab it as he prepares for a three-way race against presumptive GOP nominee Marco Rubio and the winner of the Democratic primary.
Rep. Kendrick Meek and real estate tycoon Jeff Greene are in a tight race for the Democratic Senate nomination.
Since leaving the GOP, Crist has ramped up his schmoozing in the Democratic Jewish bastions in South Florida. In June, he visited Century Village in Deerfield Beach for a ceremonial bill signing, where he greeted the mostly Jewish crowd with "Mazel tov" before playing up that his wife is from New York.
Crist plans to speak at the Jewish Center in Century Village Pembroke Pines in September, and his campaign has had discussions with Kings Point in Tamarac about visiting there, too. Both communities represent large contingents of loyal Democratic voters.
On Wednesday, Crist walked into the theater to the tune of the U2 song Beautiful Day. He then took several minutes to shake hands with voters and embrace them before climbing on stage.
On stage, Crist gave a shout-out to 93-year-old Gert Weinberg, the president of Wynmoor's Democratic Club, seated in the front row. Weinberg embraced Crist but said in an interview she's voting for Greene.
In his speech, Crist focused on his familiar theme of putting Floridians first and not being beholden to party politics. He sounded much like a Democrat, noting several times how he clashed with Republicans, and joking about ditching the GOP.
"Thank God, right?" Crist said.
He described Israel as an ally and spoke about a trade mission he took there with Rep. Robert Wexler, a Jewish Democrat, in 2007. At Wexler's suggestion, Crist stuck a prayer in the Western Wall. Crist wrote: "Dear God, please protect Florida from storms and other difficulties."
Crist wasn't just trying to score points with Jewish voters. He strived to portray himself as doing right by the people, not the party. He drew applause for highlighting his veto of a teacher merit pay bill opposed by teachers and said: "I'm the only candidate in the race who says he will protect Social Security forever."
Many Democrats who said they plan to vote for Crist said they were turned off by the mudslinging of Meek and Greene.
"I can't vote for either one of them," said Ruth Weinstein, a retired bookkeeper from New York. "I have been a registered Democrat all my life. I think this time I'm voting for Charlie Crist," adding that she'd consider voting for him only now that he abandoned the Republican Party.
Selma Shubin, a retired credit manager, said she could relate to Crist's independence. A lifelong Democrat, she now considers herself an independent voter.
"I am definitely voting for Gov. Crist for Senate. I think he has become more attuned to Floridians. … I vote for the person and what they stand for — not the party."
But the numbers are not in Crist's favor. Wynmoor is dominated by die-hard Democrats, who make up about 72 percent of the nearly 5,000 registered voters. Independent voters outnumber registered Republicans, 16 percent to 12 percent.
Asked after his speech why he'd brought his campaign to a predominantly Democratic stronghold, Crist said: "because every vote counts. … It's almost like why not come here? These are Floridians."