TAMPA — After running for governor for nearly a year, Charlie Crist has resolutely ignored fellow Democrat Nan Rich, and voters will render their verdict Tuesday on whether it was a sound strategy.
All signs point to a cakewalk by Crist, 58, a former Republican governor turned independent turned Democrat who's trying to complete a political transformation never seen before in Florida.
Crist has lost ground to Republican Gov. Rick Scott in recent polls and will be vastly outspent by him, so he needs to trounce Rich to dispel any lingering doubts about whether Democrats are comfortable with a former self-described "Jeb Bush Republican" as their nominee.
"Charlie Crist obviously has a mixed record. But he's popular and I think he can win," said Mike Brown, 59, a Hillsborough County paramedic who cast his early vote at a Tampa library. "Quite frankly, I wish there was somebody other than Crist. But he has emerged and he seems to have momentum."
Rich, 72, has been running for nearly 2½ years as the only "real Democrat" for governor, and has reminded liberal Democrats that Crist used to call himself "pro-life" and opposed same-sex marriage and gun control. But Rich remains unknown to many Democrats and her shoestring budget has prevented her message from getting through.
"For me, it will be Crist. I don't know anything about the other person," said Rosie Brewster, 57, of Tampa, a retired nursing assistant, who said she admired Crist's past efforts to make it easier for felons to regain their civil rights. "I'm just not interested in anybody when I don't know their background."
During this campaign, Crist quickly invaded Rich's home turf of Broward, where he opened a regional headquarters, rented a beachfront apartment and will rally supporters on Tuesday, not in his home base of St. Petersburg.
Crist also refused to debate Rich, focusing instead on Scott, and voters don't seem to have held it against him.
"I like Nan Rich, but I voted for Charlie Crist because he has the best chance of beating Rick Scott," said Richard Maisel, 76, who lives in Rich's Weston-based precinct.
Maisel said his wife, Janice, also voted for Crist when they cast their ballots at a Broward early voting site.
Rich hopes to pull off a big surprise Tuesday. She has been running phone banks, volunteers have fanned out at early voting sites and she's hoping for a surge of support from women who are especially disgusted by the tone of the attacks between Crist and Scott.
"My opponents are extremely negative toward each other. People are noticing it and they're not liking it, and they're looking for someone else," Rich said. "Both of them have totally ignored me. We'll see how that works out."
Even close to home, Rich has not stirred much enthusiasm. Of the 1,300 registered Democrats in Rich's precinct, only 59 had cast early and absentee ballots through Saturday, a sign of low overall turnout in Democrat-rich Broward County.
Crist expects a strong showing across the state.
"The base is excited because of Rick Scott. He's a four-year disaster," Crist said.
The state of the primary race — or nonrace — underscores the challenges of Rich's campaign and the Democratic Party in general.
The last time a Democrat won the Governor's Mansion was in 1994 when Lawton Chiles narrowly defeated Jeb Bush. The next four Democratic nominees for governor — Buddy MacKay in 1998, Bill McBride in 2002, Jim Davis in 2006 and Alex Sink in 2010 — all failed to generate enthusiasm or evidence of electability to their party's core voters, and all four lost.
It's unclear how much Crist leads Rich. The outcome has been such a foregone conclusion that pollsters have not surveyed Democratic primary voters, focusing instead on the anticipated November matchup between Crist and Scott, who now edges the Democrat by an inside-the-error margin of a few points after a multimillion dollar TV ad blitz.
The last major survey by Public Policy Polling in January showed Crist leading Rich 58 percent to 16 percent, essentially the same spread as in November 2013, when Crist entered in the race.
Crist should win by 30 percentage points or more. If Rich gets more than 30 percent of the vote, it will suggest problems with Crist's candidacy in the general election and will hasten the need for Crist to quickly secure Rich's unqualified support.
Scott's deputy campaign manager, Tim Saler, predicted Crist would get at least 81 percent of the Democratic primary vote. That's likely a preview of a Republican campaign message that Democrats are lukewarm about Crist if his victory over Rich is smaller than that.
Crist has absorbed more negative blows from the incumbent governor than any recent major Democratic candidate. Scott has spent from $8 million to $11 million on ads attacking Crist.
In addition to Rich's criticisms, "Progressive Choice" targeted black voters — 28 percent of registered Democrats — with $200,000 in radio spots and mailers that played up Crist's former tough-on-crime nickname, "Chain Gang Charlie."
Republican state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon said he has made about 2 million calls to reliable Democratic voters with prerecorded messages from Crist's successful 2006 Republican campaign for governor. Then, Crist boasted about being a pro-life, Ronald Reagan Republican who opposed same-sex marriage and supported public display of the Ten Commandments.
As an independent U.S. Senate candidate in 2010, Crist tried to campaign as a conservative and lost to Republican Marco Rubio, getting 30 percent of the vote in a three-way race. After helping President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election in Florida, Crist officially became a Democrat.
Internal Obama tracking polls showed that Crist's support among black voters shot up when he backed the president, which began when Crist issued an executive order to extend early voting in 2008. Crist later embraced Obama's stimulus package, which further eroded his standing as a Republican.
Bishop Michelle B. Patty, a pastor at a Brandon church, said before casting her early vote that African-Americans know and trust Crist, and don't know Rich.
"She doesn't have that name recognition and he did the right things for the state of Florida," Patty said, excusing Crist's political conversion along the way. "He had a revelation that he was on the wrong team."
Crist has raised $6.4 million in campaign contributions, nearly 10 times as much as Rich, who has raised $666,000.
Both Democrats have had cash infusions from Florida's public campaign finance system, which matches individual donations from Floridians: Crist has received $1.2 million in matching money and Rich $223,000.
Crist also has a political committee, Charlie Crist for Florida, that can accept unlimited contributions. The committee has raised $14.6 million and has $5.8 million cash on hand.
Rich promised she would support Crist if he wins on Tuesday, but she said she resented the fact that reporters weren't asking Crist if he'll do the same if he loses.
"I will be out there supporting the Democratic nominee," Rich said. "I'm a true Democrat and I'll support the Democrat."
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.