PANAMA CITY BEACH — Gov. Rick Scott's campaign for re-election got a jolt of partisan energy Friday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired up crowds in two North Florida cities by mocking Charlie Crist's candidacy.
With his intense style, Christie framed the contest as a referendum on character, with Scott as a steady leader who does his job and Crist as a job-hopping, party-switching opportunist who can't be trusted.
"While you have honesty and integrity with Rick Scott, you don't with Charlie Crist," Christie told about 250 Republicans packed inside a historic courthouse in Wakulla County. "You can't count on anything Charlie says."
Christie is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and a top priority is securing Scott's re-election so that the nation's biggest battleground state remains in Republican hands for the next presidential election in 2016.
Christie is considering a presidential bid in 2016, though recent polls place him in single digits. He dismissed the idea that his visits to Florida also give him valuable opportunities to meet powerful donors as well as rank-and-file voters.
Christie called the Democratic Party "the last refuge" for Crist, and he questioned Crist's manhood in describing the economic mess Scott inherited from Crist in 2011.
"He left the cleanup job to a real man," Christie said.
Democrats called Christie antiwomen for opposing equal pay bills and a higher minimum wage that New Jersey voters passed over his opposition. Crist's hope of victory rests in part on a gender gap, as polls show women favor the Democrat, leading Crist's campaign to emphasize his support for equal pay and abortion rights.
"They're going to do everything they can to avoid being in front of women voters. That's why they're over in Wakulla," Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant said of Scott and Republicans.
Scott is the least popular Florida governor in decades, and the Republicans' strategy, as is clear by their stump speeches, is to get voters to like Crist even less by talking as much about him as they do about Scott.
Scott appeared more relaxed and confident among voters as he neared the end of a 28-city bus tour promoting his plan to cut taxes by $1 billion next year, something state economists and some Republican legislators have questioned as unrealistic.
The deeply conservative Panhandle seemed like an improbable spot for visits by Christie, a moderate governor of a blue state who's remembered for forging a cooperative, Crist-like relationship with President Barack Obama after the devastating Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But people in both cities mobbed him as he reminded Republicans what's at stake.
"Do not let this good, honest man get away from this job," Christie said, pointing at Scott.
Christie spoke first at a rally at Captain Anderson's, a popular Panhandle restaurant owned by a prominent family whose members include Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. Scott will soon decide whether to appoint Patronis to a high-paying seat on the influential Public Service Commission.
Panama City's Bay County came through big for Scott in 2010, and Republicans need another strong showing in November if Scott is to become the second GOP governor in Florida's history to win back-to-back terms.
But some Republicans still need convincing. "I think it's kind of iffy," said Hope Bush of Panama City, who attended one of Friday's rallies.
In that same spirit, other Republicans, including former House Speaker Allan Bense of Panama City and Rep. Marti Coley of Marianna voiced concern about the possibility of a depressed voter turnout that could doom Republicans.
"Get 10 people to the polls," Bense urged the crowd. "That's how we're going to win."
Scott and Crist have been battling each other for nearly a year, but for many voters the race is just beginning.
"It's a close race. We always knew it would be. I don't think Florida does anything but close elections," Christie said.