Even as Charlie Crist was kicking off his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, the Republicans already were depicting him as an opportunist, turncoat and career politician.
They have plenty of ammunition to use against the former governor, attorney general, education commissioner and legislator who has morphed from a law-and-order Republican to a populist Democrat.
Yet his announcement speech Monday showed why it is possible Florida voters might consider a reformulated Crist and why his entry into the race has made former lawmaker Nan Rich’s bid to become the Democratic candidate for governor seem all but irrelevant.
Crist has always seemed driven more by what he thinks voters want than political ideology, and the St. Petersburg native clearly thinks Floridians are weary of the harsh partisan divide that dominates politics today. He offers a middle ground, at least in tone.
Crist, who drew the ire of tea party groups during his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate when he embraced President Obama and accepted stimulus funds, pointedly talked of the need for individuals with differing views to respectfully work together rather than question the “patriotism” of opponents.
Still, he outlined a mainstream Democratic platform that favors education funding, mass transit, voters’ rights and environmental protections.
He chided Gov. Rick Scott for slashing education funding. He also notably promised to seek a revival of the high-speed rail project that Scott killed shortly after taking office. That issue might find some traction in the I-4 region, where the Tampa to Orlando route was projected to be an economic boon.
The former governor was no favorite of business groups, and we doubt Crist’s promises to bolster international trade and tourism, areas where Scott merits good marks, is likely to change their view. Scott has won their praise for cutting regulations and taxes.
Crist’s response was to lament the undue influence of special interests.
Crist is never so comfortable and energized as when he is campaigning, and he possesses the political skills that Scott painfully lacks. On Monday, Crist was in his element and on his game.
But Scott’s well-financed campaign will make sure the man who chose to leave the governor’s office to run for the U.S. Senate, and who selected disgraced Jim Greer as head of the Republican Party of Florida, faces a lot of troubling questions in the coming months.
As Crist essentially acknowledged, he’s going to be in for a rough ride. But we give him credit for a smooth start.