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Crist leans more toward Democrats, but does party want him?

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:08 AM
TAMPA -

The speech former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will give at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night is seen widely as a move toward a run for governor as a Democrat in 2014.

But Crist would first have to get past one potential hurdle — other Democrats.

Would the Democratic Party accept as one of its own the man whose tough-on-crime reputation earned him the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie?"

The same Charlie Crist who:

The answer appears to be that some would and some wouldn't.

Crist, some Democrats said in interviews Tuesday, has never been a tea party-style ideologue.

"Those who have worked with him know that he was very fair to both sides of the aisle and included people from both sides" while governor, said former Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth, appointed by Crist to head the state Department of Children and Families in 2006.

"I don't see Charlie Crist as having changed" with his party shift, Butterworth said. "I think he still feels the same way, and that is bipartisanship, which I think is needed."

Others say Crist went too far to come back the other way.

"I want a real Democrat to be nominated," said Susan Smith of Tampa, chairwoman of the party's Progressive Caucus. "He's made appointments to the Supreme Court that disqualify him, from my point of view," Smith said, speaking of arch-conservatives Charles Canady and Ricky Polston.

Crist has been coy about his ambitions, saying he's happy as an independent and happy in the private sector. Asked about the governor's race in an NBC news interview Monday, he said, "I don't think so."

Several polls have shown him beating Gov. Rick Scott, but a new poll Tuesday showed Crist's personal popularity declining, largely among Republicans, since his Obama endorsement.

In the Public Policy Polling survey, 36 percent registered favorable opinions and 44 percent unfavorable, down from 41 percent each three weeks ago.

Still, the announcement that Crist's speech in Charlotte will be Thursday night, the most important night of the convention, suggests the Obama campaign is ready to welcome Crist to the fold — and possibly to back him in a future campaign.

Some Florida Democrats think Crist could provide them something they desperately need — a winner.

Democrats hold only one statewide office — Bill Nelson's U.S. Senate seat — and small minorities in the Legislature.

"I think Democrats are so hungry for a winner right now that if they think Charlie Crist can beat a Rick Scott, they'll forgive him for his past sins and embrace him for the sake of taking back the Governor's Mansion," said Democratic Party strategist Ana Cruz of Tampa.

"My guess is his race for the governorship in 2012 begins Thursday night," Cruz said. "I think he's in."

Others said Crist would underscore that the Democrats are a "big-tent" party, while Republicans are a party of exclusion.

"It's a great statement of where the Republican is right now, how extreme they've become" said Hillsborough County Democratic Party Chairman Chris Mitchell.

"A lot of people are going to remember what Crist did in this election, coming out for President Obama. I think he would definitely be a contender if he chose to run in a Democratic primary."

If Crist ran for office, one of his most important supporters would be Orlando trial lawyer and fundraiser John Morgan. Crist works for Morgan & Morgan "For the People" law firm.

An ardent Democrat and Obama supporter, Morgan backed Crist's 2006 governor's race against Democrat Jim Davis of Tampa, and his 2010 Senate race. Faced with losing the 2010 Senate primary to Marco Rubio, Crist left the party and ran unsuccessfully as an independent.

"If Charlie Crist ran for governor in 2014, I would raise him millions of dollars," Morgan said. But he denied rumors that he's been urging other Democratic donors to line up behind Crist.

Morgan said he doesn't know whether Crist will make that run, "But I do know there are people coming to him asking him to, significant leaders in the Democratic Party."

One Democrat not enthusiastic about the prospect of Crist as a 2014 Democratic candidate is state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, who intends to run herself.

"We welcome anybody into our party who shares the values of the party," she said. "He has had many different positions over the years, and it will be up to the voters to determine what his position is on the issues."

Cruz said Crist would be most vulnerable to attack from other Democrats on social issues, including gay rights and abortion.

But Crist hasn't been easy to pin down on those issues.

Early in his career he proclaimed himself pro-choice, but in his 2006 campaign, with the party moving to the right, he described himself as pro-life. However, he didn't advocate changes in abortion laws, saying he'd "rather change hearts than change the law."

In 2005, with the 2006 Republican governor's primary looming, he signed a petition for a referendum on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which opponents said also would ban civil unions. But he later refused to allow state party money to be spent backing the amendment.

"I've always been kind of a live-and-let-live kind of guy," he said last week. "I have my views, but I've never felt I should put those on other people."

In 1992, during his first state Senate race, he took a high-profile stance in favor of an amendment banning gill-net fishing.

In 1997, he mounted a high-profile campaign against a Florida Power electric rate increase; in his 2006 race, he inveighed against electric utility and property insurance companies he said exploited and abused citizens.


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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