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Adam C. Smith column: 5 things to watch in Charlie Crist vs. Rick Scott

Charlie Crist, the former self-described Ronald Reagan Republican, officially became the Democratic nominee for Florida governor Tuesday, easily beating back a bare-bones primary challenge from former state Sen. Nan Rich of Broward County.

Likewise, Republican Gov. Rick Scott cruised against two obscure and nearly invisible Republican opponents.

That's hardly big news considering Rich could not afford a single TV ad and Scott months ago started attacking Crist as the de facto Democratic nominee. The general election for all purposes began with Scott pouring more than $20 million into TV ads that have steadily turned what had been a double-digit Crist lead into a dead-heat race.

The current governor leads the former governor by 1 percentage point, based on the average of recent Florida polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com. Here are five things to watch over the next 70 days:

1. Democratic intensity

That Rich failed to crack 30 percent of the primary vote statewide should provide some comfort to Democrats worried that former Republican Crist might still have a lot of work to do with skeptical members of his party's base.

Rich did not endorse Crist on Tuesday night but is expected to do so soon. She did call Crist to congratulate him.

"It was a brief call. I didn't really feel like debating him tonight," she quipped to supporters in Broward County, a reference to Crist refusing to debate her.

Crist needs much more than Rich's endorsement and a lopsided primary win. He needs energy and enthusiasm — far more than the past three Democratic nominees managed to generate.

The single-biggest obstacle to Crist this year is voter turnout history. In 2002, 40 percent of Democrats turned out to vote and 46 percent of Republicans turned out. In 2006, 40 percent of Democrats showed up, and 45 percent of Republicans. In 2010, Scott won when just 38 percent of Democrats voted and 46 percent of Republicans did.

It's no accident that Crist for the first time in his political career spent an election night in Fort Lauderdale, rather than his hometown of St. Petersburg. His campaign is fixated with driving up turnout in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, heavily populated, Democratic counties where turnout often lags the rest of Florida.

It also helps explain why Crist through much of the year has often sounded more like a liberal Democrat than a centrist former Republican. He has touted the Affordable Care Act with more gusto than most Democrats, for instance.

"It is strange to me that he would go and lean so far to the left and so publicly when what he needs to do is win independents and take some part of the Republican Party with him," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a veteran Republican campaign adviser who supports Scott and remains friendly with Crist.

2. The Obama factor

Four years ago, Rick Scott often sounded like he was running against President Barack Obama as much as he was running against Democratic nominee Alex Sink. The former chief financial officer kept her distance from the unpopular president in 2010 but still narrowly lost to Scott.

Crist, in contrast, said he is eager to campaign alongside the president.

Smart move?

"Not at all," said Democratic strategist Screven Watson of Tallahassee, suggesting Crist would be wise to focus more on Democratic Floridians such as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and former Sen. Bob Graham. "The president's numbers are not good. It is what it is."

At a campaign stop in Tampa on Tuesday, Gov. Scott was eager to stress Crist's support for Obama and the Affordable Care Act.

"Anything the White House puts out with regard to Obamacare is wrong," the governor said, when asked about studies suggesting that tens of thousands of jobs would be created if Florida accepted federal money to expand Medicaid. "We know that Charlie Crist is all in. He says that Obamacare is great. Charlie, it's not great."

But energizing the Democratic base is crucial for Crist, and Obama can still fire up rank-and-file Democrats. The Crist campaign may not be eager for Obama to campaign among Tampa Bay's swing voters, but he could do a lot of good in Democratic strongholds in Jacksonville or Miami-Dade.

Expect a host of Democratic surrogates from across the country to converge on Florida in the coming weeks to help elect a Democratic governor of America's biggest battleground state, including probably Bill Clinton.

3. Money

Between Crist's assorted political committees and outside groups or allies, Democrats are likely to spend at least $50 million toward unseating Gov. Scott. That would be impressive for any Florida Democratic candidate, but in this election, the normal assumptions about campaign spending are out the window.

Scott, a former hospital chain CEO, spent more than $70 million of his own money to win in 2010, and is still worth more than $130 million. Normally, rival campaigns constantly monitor how much their opponent still has available to spend. That is pointless with someone like Scott who at any moment can throw another $20 million, $30 million, $40 million into the race.

Consider that since March, Scott's campaign spent more $20 million on TV ads to move the polls about 6 points in his direction. Crist can move the needle with his own TV ad barrage, but he can never compete financially with Scott. At best, he can hope Scott bumps into the law of diminishing returns.

4. Negativity

If you're tired of the negative ads now, wait until Nov. 4 finally arrives. Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie could well be an attractive "None of the Above" selection by Election Day.

Crist has already made attacking Scott's character and integrity a central part of his campaign message, and it is in Scott's interest to tamp down Democratic enthusiasm for their nominee. Negative ads are the most effective way to do that, and some observers suspect the Scott campaign has barely warmed up.

"My sense is that with kind of a general barrage, they're preparing the battlefield and softening up the enemy in preparation for very specific attacks that will be driven home with a lot of resources," Stipanovich said.

5. Tampa Bay

The region represents 25 percent of the electorate statewide, as well as the biggest pool of persuadable swing voters who don't necessarily vote straight party line. For decades it has been an axiom of Florida politics that Tampa Bay is ground zero for any statewide campaign. This year may be the exception.

TV stations in Tampa Bay and Orlando will certainly enjoy vast campaign ad spending, but the Crist campaign has signalled repeatedly that it views southeast Florida as its top priority for targeting and turning out voters.

That's why Crist spent primary night in Broward, and is renting a condo there. That's why his running mate, Annette Taddeo, is from Miami-Dade. As the demographics of Florida steadily change, and Republican-leaning white voters represent an ever-shrinking portion of the electorate, the path to Democratic victory relies more and more on what happens in South Florida, and Miami-Dade in particular.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

Adam C. Smith column: 5 things to watch in Charlie Crist vs. Rick Scott 08/26/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 11:54pm]

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