Adam C. Smith column: The invisible Charlie Crist campaign

Charlie Crist is running for governor under the Democrat banner, but hasn’t really done much other than scraping together funds from donors and pockets.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Charlie Crist is running for governor under the Democrat banner, but hasn’t really done much other than scraping together funds from donors and pockets.

It may not be readily apparent if you follow the publicity that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist constantly generates across Florida or the Washington pundits who describe Crist vs. Rick Scott as the race to watch in 2014. But here's the reality: There is no real Crist campaign for governor.

Sure, Barack Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is on board, along with Teddy Goff, Obama's digital director. And Obamaworld has opened up a bunch of Democratic fundraising doors from Hollywood and beyond for the former Republican governor.

But it has been nearly three months since Crist officially announced his candidacy and at least 10 since everyone knew he was preparing to do just that.

And yet, the campaign essentially boils down to Crist quietly raising money, gearing up for a book tour with a few newly hired, part-time consultants offering advice from out of town and juggling assorted other clients.

The only full-time campaign operation is fundraising, which so far appears decent — but hardly daunting — when stacked against the incumbent governor.

Campaign manager? Coming soon. Halfway decent website? Coming soon. A real campaign headquarters, rather than anonymous office space for a few staffers dialing for dollars? Eventually. Grass roots organizing? Who knows. Weekly announcements of Florida county leadership teams? Dream on.

The situation worries plenty of Florida Democrats banking on Crist to revive their moribund party. In fact, it's all very Charlie Crist and predictable for those who have watched his previous five statewide campaigns.

His playbook is consistent: Raise vast sums of money, employ a skeletal campaign team and save every possible penny until it comes time to flood the airwaves with TV ads before voting starts.

Crist, 57, has always relied more on his own political gut than paid advisers. Gaining his genuine trust is said to be extraordinarily difficult.

More often than not, the playbook has worked. Running his 2006 campaign in 2014 won't, however.

He almost surely will have far less money than Gov. Scott's $100 million.

And he's running as a Democrat — whose voters need to be targeted, pushed and prodded to turn out in a midterm election — not as a Republican whose base includes far more reliable voters.

It seems Team Crist, which largely consists of Charlie and Carole Crist and personal injury lawyer John Morgan, pressed the reset button soon after his so-so November campaign kickoff in downtown St. Petersburg.

Veteran Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who had been more or less leading the campaign, has significantly scaled back his involvement, though he insists he never wanted a big, daily role and is helping Crist on "special projects" such as his book rollout. (The Party's Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat publishes Feb. 4.)

Team Crist jettisoned campaign manager Bill Hyers just before he formally started (and shortly after Hyers showed up at a Crist fundraising reception in shorts). Michael Hoffman, Crist's "body man" who also juggled fundraising and scheduling duties, also left.

In the past, Crist relied on the vast resources of the Florida GOP to help him in general elections. Now a Democrat, Crist's state party appears to have less of a pulse than his campaign.

State chairwoman Allison Tant, who campaigned for the post promising to be a terrific money raiser, so far appears to be anything but. While the Florida GOP has been identifying and targeting the estimated 450,000 Republicans who vote in presidential elections but didn't in 2010, the Democratic Party's organizational efforts have been nearly invisible.

It's only January! That's what Team Crist says, and it's true. He has near-universal name recognition and doesn't need to spend a lot of time and money introducing himself to voters.

But Crist has not been acting like he understands the huge challenge ahead.

An automated poll by Public Policy Polling released this week shows a neck-and-neck race between Crist and Scott, 43 percent to 41 percent, while a PPP poll three months ago found Crist leading Scott by 12 percentage points.

And this is before Scott and the Florida GOP have started spending big money to tear down Crist.

Most everybody in Florida politics expected Crist to run for governor as a Democrat at least six months ago. It's hard to explain how, at this point, he could still be putting together a campaign staff.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

Adam C. Smith column: The invisible Charlie Crist campaign 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 9:18pm]

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