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Politics / Issues

Surprise! Charlie Crist, (D), Announces Candidacy to Return to Tallahassee

It was probably the most anti-climatic announcement in politics in recent years: Charlie Crist is running for governor. Crist announced his candidacy this morning in his home town of St. Petersburg.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF
Charlie Crist presses the flesh after his announcement

Click here to listen to Charlie Crist's entire speech in St. Petersburg

You might be forgiven for having a feeling of deja-vu during the announcement. It was held on the St. Petersburg waterfront, about a mile from where  Crist announced his run for Senate about three years ago. Then, he had just ditched his Republican credentials and ran as an Independent. This time, Crist did a 180-degree turn.

"No matter what they say, it is not a sin to reach across the aisle," he told the crowd. "It is your obligation to work together. So yes, I am running as a Democrat - and I am proud to do it."

So now Crist, as a "proud Democrat," is putting his populist shoes back on and is campaigning as an outsider.

"The far right wing seeks to make much of my party affiliation. That is precisely what is wrong with politics today," he told the crowd of a couple hundred people. "Rick Scott, like his gang, and his gang in Washington, and here in Florida, seem to think that the only way to govern is from the fringes. That anyone who doesn't agree with them on everything is an enemy - or even worse - somehow not as patriotic. When the people give you the honor of being their governor, you aren't the governor of any one party. You're the governor of all Floridians."

There's no doubting what tack Crist is going to take over the next year, as he campaigns to return to the Governor's mansion. He said his catch phrase - "for the people" - more than a dozen times in his 26-minute speech, referring to his position at a prominent Orlando-based law firm. He stood in front of a placard reading "The People's Governor," and pledged to wrest back Tallahassee from the special interests.

"You deserve a governor who wakes up every day thinking about you," he said. "Who you can trust to govern honestly, in our collective best interest. Who will make this economy more fair for hard-working taxpayers like you. And who will move Florida forward. Not by giving every break to big business, but by leading on the things that matter to you."

No matter what they say, it is not a sin to reach across the aisle. It is your obligation to work together. So yes, I am running as a Democrat - and I am proud to do it.

One of the things that matters to Crist is money. There won't be any shortage of that on the Republican side. Rick Scott spent more than $70 million of his own money to win the office three years ago. This time, he wants to raise $100 million. So Crist - who was outspent when he ran for Senate as an Independent - is counting on the Democratic money machine.

But Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet says the former governor has an advantage money can't buy.

"He won’t have anywhere near the kind of money Rick Scott has -- but here’s the catch -- he doesn’t need that much money," says Bousquet. "Crist has about 96 percent name ID in this state. And it’s an interesting thing: there are three, and only three, political figures in the state of Florida who have what I would call universal name recognition. One is Jeb Bush. One is Marco Rubio. And the third is Charlie Crist."

Republicans started their campaign to paint Crist as an opportunist weeks before today's announcement. They've launched a web site, CharlieForFlorida.com.

"His only core belief is his personal ambition," reads the ominous voice on the web site's video. "He's an opportunist, says Tampa's Mayor Buckhorn. Congressman Kendrick Meek says he can't be trusted. Al Gore said it's a little unusual to have somebody flip-flop, and then flop-flip. Who were they all talking about? This man, Charlie Crist."

Republican attacks began immediately after the announcement. George LeMieux, who was appointed to the Senate by Crist, took part in a conference call.

"I heard one commentator today say that Charlie Crist has had more positions that a gymnast. And I think that's right," says LeMieux. "He's been in three parties now, in a little more than three and a half years, and has been on at least two sides - if not three sides - of each issue."

But that party-bending had little effect on some of his supporters, like Shavonda Bailey. She drove to the event from Manatee County to show her support.

"I think that he's a smart man with a smart move," says Bailey. "If you saw the wrong things being done with the party you were with, and you know that Democrats are the better party to go with, I think that he made a very smart move. I don't find that there's any issues with that. I think he's going to be our next governor. Rick has really let us down, in many ways, and we would really like to see Charlie take that off his back."

On the other side of the spectrum is Carol Bowers of Madeira Beach. She voted for Crist when he was a Republican, but she vows that won't happen again.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF
Carol Bowers makes her position known

"I think he's an opportunist," she says. "I think he just jumps wherever it'll benefit Charlie Crist, where he can get the votes, and if he gets rejected from one group, he jumps into the next group and he's just to advance himself. He doesn't have any core principles."

Crist immediately took the front-runner's spot in the Democratic Party from Nan Rich, who has made little traction in her quest for the governor's seat. And with incumbent Rick Scott's polling numbers not doing so well, this race is an open book.

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