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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If politics were the movies, this past week brought the premiere of another sequel from a familiar film franchise — “Charlie Crist the Candidate: Part IX.”
As Crist makes another run for Florida governor, one question is whether he can still attract an audience. Or will the latest version turn into a box office flop?
He’s unquestionably a top-tier candidate — and not just because he was the first major Democrat to enter the race for governor when he announced his candidacy on Tuesday.
“On the surface, Crist is a front-runner,” said Sean Foreman, a political scientist at Barry University.
Currently a third-term Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg, he’s a former Republican governor, and — running as a Democrat — came within a whisker of returning to the governor’s office in 2014. Still, Crist faces more obstacles than in 2014, when he was able to glide to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
One major candidate, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, is effectively running already. Another major candidate U.S. Rep. Val Demings, may run.
On May 4, just before Crist made his candidacy official, Fried held a Tallahassee news conference at which she all but declared her own candidacy. “As the only statewide elected Democrat, it makes absolute sense for me to be running for governor.”
Demings hasn’t been as overt about her intentions, but on May 4 released a campaign video that she called “Ready for the moment.” A former Orlando police chief, Demings gained extensive national attention when she was considered by Joe Biden last year as a potential running mate and acted as one of the House managers during the Senate trial of the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump, in 2020.
In a party that increasingly prizes diversity, Crist is a 64-year-old white man, Demings is a 64-year-old Black woman, and Fried is a 43-year-old-Jewish woman.
Crist is well known in the worlds of politics, business and media, but it’s been more than a decade since he left the governor’s mansion, in January 2011. (He also served as a Republican state senator, education commissioner and attorney general.)
And though serving as a member of Congress is important, Florida has 27 of them, and few have the ability to command attention outside their home territories.
“We assume that he has statewide name recognition. But 10 years out of office is enough time for people to forget about you,” Foreman said, pointing to the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, when Gwen Graham was a candidate. She was a former congresswoman and daughter of former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. She came in second.
Hundreds of people have moved to the state every day since Crist left statewide office, said Palm Beach County Commissioner Maria Sachs, a former senator and state representative.
Sabrina Javellana, 23, a Hallandale Beach City Commissioner, was more direct.
“People my age have no idea who Charlie Crist is,” she said. “I only know because I’m involved in politics. My friends, they have no idea.”
Foreman said Crist might be able to be a Biden-like figure who can unite Democrats who see him as someone with a chance at winning over independent voters and moderate Republicans in the general election.
“He may just be that crossover candidate who can appeal to the middle, pick up any dissatisfied Republicans and at least claim that he’ll be a uniter because of his unique history in both parties. That would be one of his selling points,” Forman said.
Every election season, Democrats struggle over what kind of candidate to nominate.
One theory: nominate someone from the liberal-progressive wing with the goal of motivating younger, liberal voters who don’t get excited about the usual Democratic fare.
The other theory: nominate a centrist with the hope of attracting the broadest swath of voters by appealing to independents and moderate Republicans.
Grace Carrington, Broward County’s Democratic state committeewoman and a member of the Democratic National Committee, thinks the party should focus on appealing to the broadest possible swath of voters and not get bogged down in ideological fights. “What I want, I really want, is for people to consider who is best to lead us to victory on the Democratic side.”
But Javellana, who is deeply rooted in progressive politics, said she and others are looking for a candidate who can deliver bold action, rather than incremental change on big problems, and not a moderate. Younger voters in particular, she believes, “need someone who excites us. We’re tired of having the lesser of two evils.”
Sachs said there isn’t a clear case for either approach. In 2014, Democrats picked the moderate Crist, and he lost by 1 percentage point. In 2018, Democrats nominated progressive Andrew Gillum, and he lost by four-tenths of a percentage point.
Sachs said Democratic unity is more important. “We have to find the issues that unite us rather than fight about the issues that divide us.”
Crist is a gifted politician with an ability to connect with people he encounters. Foreman said Crist’s renowned abilities as an retail politician are a huge asset. “That wins campaigns. People want to be comfortable with people they are voting for.”
And, Foreman said, Crist should be able to raise lots of campaign money.
Defeating Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is what Democrats want most. They’d like to derail his presidential ambitions.
Right now, Sachs and Broward Mayor Steve Geller, a former Florida Senate Democratic leader, see DeSantis as tough to beat.
“I think today DeSantis is the front-runner,” Geller said. “He’s a very formidable candidate. But is he beatable? Of course.”
And Crist seems to have attracted DeSantis’ attention.
The day before Crist announced, DeSantis visited St. Petersburg — where he trolled Crist by holding an event at a favorite Crist restaurant.
On Crist’s announcement day, the governor had a quip prepared — delivered in more or less the same words at stops in three different media markets — about Crist’s evolving political affiliations and allegiance to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
And in Miami, DeSantis revealed what he really thinks of Crist. “Any time there’s an open office somewhere you can bet someone like a Crist is probably going to be slithering around for it.”
Anthony Man can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ browardpolitics