CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlie Crist's Democratic coming-out party kicks off Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.
The former self-described "as conservative as you can get" governor will tell tens of thousands of spectators and many more watching on television why he supports Barack Obama's re-election. It's the latest big move in the remarkable journey of the lifelong-Republican-turned independent, and by most accounts another step toward Crist running for governor again in 2014 — as a Democrat.
And what do hundreds of Democratic activists gathered in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention think?
"I won't automatically dismiss him, but I'm not saying yes to him either," said Ed Sarfaty of Lake Worth, recounting that several people on his bus ride from Florida to North Carolina were talking about walking out when Crist gets up to speak.
Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon could be one of those.
"If he gets up to speak at the convention, it'll be a good time to go to the bathroom," said Gannon, a Democratic delegate. "He's a nice man, but he doesn't have a clue about his value system."
And so it was as many of the Florida Democratic Party's most hard-core activists gathered to start their party's three-day convention where the highest-profile speaking slot for any Floridian will go to a politician many of them have been voting against for years.
Among the delegates donning crazy hats and all manner of Obama campaign buttons were Democrats gushing about the prospect of Crist running to be their standard-bearer and Democrats groaning about it. The most common sentiment, though, was wary ambivalence.
"I'm one of those believers who says, 'If you want to join our church you're always welcome in our congregation.' But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to make you my preacher,'' said state Democratic chairman Rod Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006. "I think he would have to take some Desi Arnaz lessons if he ran as a Democrat. He would have some 'splaining to do."
Crist, 56, arrived in Charlotte on Tuesday, accompanied by his wife, Carole, and his boss, personal injury lawyer John Morgan. They were headed to a private event featuring singer-songwriter James Taylor.
He said he did not know when he will speak Thursday, except that it will be in the evening. Crist is unlikely to be speaking between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. when the networks cover the convention and when Obama accepts the nomination.
Other speakers scheduled that night include Vice President Joe Biden, former Democratic nominee John Kerry, and actor and Obama campaign co-chair Eva Longoria.
What will Crist say? "I will give a fuller perspective of (Obama's) wonderful leadership, and other than that you'll have to wait to hear."
Crist presumably will help make the Obama campaign's case that the GOP has moved too far to the extreme right and is out of step with average Americans.
If Democrats are so far skeptical about Crist's future in their party, Florida Republicans are acting worried about him running against Gov. Rick Scott in two years. The party has blasted their former leader in press releases in recent months, launched a website (twofacesofcharlie.com) attacking him, and on Tuesday announced it will air TV ads this week in Florida to remind voters about Crist praising Jeb Bush, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.
An automated poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Crist would beat Scott 45 percent to 42 percent. That's no better than how a generic Democrat would fare against Scott, the firm found. The Aug. 31-Sept. 2 poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.
"Charlie Crist isn't a particularly popular figure in Florida anymore. After his endorsement of Obama, only 36 percent of voters in the state now have a positive opinion of him to 44 percent with a negative one," the polling firm noted in a memo. "He's lost most of his remaining appeal to Republican voters — he was at 34/49 with them a month ago and now he's dropped a net 21 points to 24/60.
"Democrats still appear to be somewhat skeptical of him as well though — 44 percent rate him positively to 33 percent with a negative opinion."
Crist dropped out of the GOP to become an independent in April 2010 as Marco Rubio overtook him in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. More recently, he has more aggressively moved toward the Democratic Party, endorsing Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson earlier this month, endorsing Obama 10 days ago in the Tampa Bay Times, and now appearing at the Democratic National Convention.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said Crist not only will help Obama in Florida but also would make a formidable Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
"Think about the I-4 corridor. This is the swing area of the swing state," she said. "We have a lot of independently minded people that don't stick to party. It's not a large percentage, but I think it'll be a large enough percentage that it will be a nice shot in the arm for the president."
If nothing else, Crist's appearance in Charlotte underscores how bizarre Florida politics can be. Certainly some of his past and potential future rivals sounded less than eager to weigh in on Crist.
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, who ran against Crist for governor in 2006: "Charlie Crist or any other candidate would be under the microscope."
Former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who ran against Crist and Rubio for Senate in 2010, declined to comment: "I'm not in charge. … I'm going to get my (convention) credentials."
Former gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, who is weighing whether to run again in 2014: "You'll have to ask the Obama people what they're thinking. Is this an epiphany by Charlie Crist or is this just to advance a political career?"
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a convention delegate, predicted party activists ultimately will be pragmatic as they watch Crist and the 2014 Democratic field take shape.
"I want to win, so I think whoever is going to help us win is going to be warmly received. Charlie's obviously got a lot of ground to make up. He's basically reversed every position he's ever held, so whether he can get through a Democratic primary remains to be seen," Buckhorn said. "If (party activists) had a better option, they absolutely would go with it. The problem is whether they have a better option and whether that option can win."
Times staff writer Alex Leary and Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]