Nickens: Charlie Crist is off his game

Despite embracing openness, Charlie Crist has said he won’t release his wife Carole’s individual tax returns. Voters, however, will want some reassurance that nothing poses a conflict of interest for the likely Democratic nominee.   
Despite embracing openness, Charlie Crist has said he won’t release his wife Carole’s individual tax returns. Voters, however, will want some reassurance that nothing poses a conflict of interest for the likely Democratic nominee. 
Published June 27, 2014

Rick Scott has done more damage to this state than any modern governor.

The Republican has starved public schools and higher education, disregarded voting rights and privacy rights, and dismantled environmental protections. He has little feel for Florida and sides with electric utilities, property insurers, developers and the National Rifle Association over the concerns of families struggling to pay bills, afford health insurance, find quality public schools for their kids and keep their neighborhoods safe.

Yet Scott could win re-election in November.

As we head into July, the race appears essentially tied and Charlie Crist is not maximizing his greatest assets as the likeable guy who understands Floridians and their priorities. Instead, the Republican-turned-Democrat is uncharacteristically committing too many unforced errors.

The newcomer to the Democratic Party won't debate lifelong Democrat Nan Rich, his primary opponent. The former governor who embraced openness won't release his wife's individual tax returns. The former supporter of the Cuba embargo now opposes it and suggested he would visit Cuba this summer, then flipped around and said last week he is too busy to go.

This is not a good way to start the summer.

In fact, it all feeds into the narrative that the Crist campaign is misfiring. His natural political instincts are failing him. The fundraising should be more vigorous. The ground effort should be in higher gear. The enthusiasm for defeating an unpopular opponent should be louder.

Maybe this is normal hand-wringing. After all, Crist faces a ruthless Republican machine that could raise $100 million and already is saturating television in Tampa Bay with attack ads. In the face of all that, the race is still up for grabs. The notoriously tight-fisted Crist has been saving his money and has yet to launch his television campaign. He should get a good energy boost from Saturday night's scheduled appearance with former President Bill Clinton in South Florida.

But we also kept reassuring ourselves that the Tampa Bay Rays would recover from all those early losses. Look how that has turned out.

Just like a key hit there or a better pitching performance there could have stopped the Rays' slide, Crist could have avoided these early mistakes.

There would be nothing wrong with debating Rich, who has no money and poses no real threat. Think of it as a warmup and an opportunity to build some enthusiasm among Democrats who still have to be convinced Crist's conversion is genuine. The fear is not that they will vote for Scott in November. The fear is they will not vote at all. See: Sink, Alex, 2010 and voter turnout numbers in South Florida.

There should be nothing wrong with releasing Carole Crist's tax returns. Voters understand she had her business interests when she married an incumbent governor, but they want some reassurance that nothing poses a conflict of interest for the likely Democratic nominee.

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And there is nothing wrong with calling for the end of the embargo on Cuba. The embargo has been a failure, and there are opportunities for Florida to capitalize on a smarter policy. But Crist never should have suggested he would visit Cuba during the election campaign if he wasn't going to follow through.

Taken separately, these summer dustups are not going to decide the election. Taken together, they hand Scott an opportunity to enhance the narrative that Crist's actions don't match his rhetoric and that he cannot be trusted. Crist will have enough trouble explaining his various public policy epiphanies without handing Scott more ammunition.

To be fair, Scott has hit a few bumps himself.

Crist will surely remind Hispanic voters about Mike Fernandez, the prominent Scott fundraiser who abruptly left the campaign and said in an email that the governor's advisers do not understand the Hispanic community. And Crist capitalized on the Committee of 100's foolish decision to disinvite him from speaking to the business group, apparently at the request of the Scott camp. Crist's speech got more attention than it would have if he had delivered it privately to the business leaders, and it included some pretty smart policy proposals.

But Crist is the one on the defensive lately. If there were more confidence that his campaign was smoothly operating behind the scenes while these minor controversies fill Facebook and Twitter, that would be one thing. But Crist listens to few advisers besides his father and wife, and he relies more on his gut than sophisticated political strategies to raise money and target voters in the digital age.

In baseball manager terms, that's a Sparky Anderson approach in a Joe Maddon era.

There is plenty of time for the governor's race to unfold and the momentum to shift back and forth. This could be much ado about nothing before a holiday week, when Floridians are thinking more about the beach, fireworks or heading to North Carolina. But getting the fundamentals down in the early days of summer can pay off in November, and Crist is off his game.