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 are 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.
Former state Sen. Nan Rich of Broward County announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination months ago but shows little sign of traction.
The doubts about Crist's ability to win have prompted prominent Democrats to talk to Sen. Nelson about running for governor. Nelson, who withstood tens of millions of dollars in third-party attack ads last year against U.S. Rep. Connie Mack III to easily win a third Senate term, would not have to resign his Senate seat to run for governor.
Among those who says he encouraged Nelson to run? Crist's boss and top cheerleader, John Morgan, the trial lawyer whose Morgan & Morgan TV ads blanket much of Florida. Morgan and Nelson discussed it over dinner at Luma in Winter Park in February, but Nelson was noncommittal.
"It would certainly make my life easier,'' Morgan said of Nelson running, noting that Nelson ran for governor in 1990 but lost the primary after then-Sen. Lawton Chiles entered the race. "I said to Bill, 'Lawton did it to you, and wouldn't you rather be an executive than a senator?' I believe that Bill Nelson is one of our great politicians ever."
Miami businessman Chris Korge, another of Florida's top Democratic fundraisers, said, "Bill Nelson is the 800-pound gorilla, and nobody could beat him in a primary if he were to run. Until Bill declares unequivocally that he is not going to do it, it gives a lot of people an excuse to sit on the sidelines."
Morgan hopes Nelson makes up his mind soon: "If Bill Nelson is going to run, he needs to announce now. He needs to do that for Charlie Crist and so that everybody can know what cards are on the table."
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Nelson isn't the only big-name potential challenger. Former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who narrowly lost to Scott in 2010 — and has said Crist would be "a disaster" of a Democratic nominee — has not entirely closed the door on running again.
"Charlie Crist seems to be the hot commodity, but there are donors that are still very excited about Alex. I just had one the other day say to me, 'Let me know as soon as she decides because I want to help,' " said Justin Day, 32, of Tampa who raised money for Sink in 2010 and in 2012 raised more money for Barack Obama than anyone else in the country under age 40.
"We've got three strong prospective gubernatorial nominees, and I think all three of them could beat the current governor,'' Day said.
But it's much easier to foresee the attack ads hurled against Crist than Sink or Nelson:
• While Crist was busy vying to be John McCain's vice president and running for U.S. Senate, Florida was bleeding jobs.
• He walked away from the job once and expects it handed back.
• Several of his top political allies and friends are behind bars for everything from stealing money to public corruption to running a Ponzi scheme. (See Greer, Rothstein, Mendelsohn, etc.)
• His wife has barely spoken to her daughters in two years.
• He has been on every side of countless major issues, from health care reform to offshore drilling, to same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
"His positions have evolved so much over the years that what will be a very well-financed Republican candidate is going to put Charlie on the defensive a lot, which may make it very hard for him to be able to win the race, though he would win if the election were held today," said Korge.
The past two public polls, by Quinnipiac University and Public Policy Polling in March, showed Crist beating Scott by 16 points and 12 points, respectively.
"What Charlie has going for him is that the people of Florida know him. That's his greatest strength. Not only do they know him, they like him. And they trust him,'' said Morgan.
No politician did more to help Obama win Florida last year than Crist, who received a primetime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. The Democratic Governors Association also is high on Crist.
"President Obama is very grateful for what Charlie Crist did for him, and I know President Obama's inner circle is very appreciative. They have a very impressive Rolodex. I think President Clinton would be very helpful, and he has a very impressive Rolodex,'' Morgan said. "He's the only person that can raise the money to compete, and that is just a fact of life. Unless Bill Nelson decided to get into the race."
Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected]