Fla. GOP tries to defeat Crist before he can run

Many speculate that former Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent who supported President Obama, may run against Gov. Rick Scott as a Democrat in 2014. Florida Republicans are trying hard to discredit Crist.

Gus Ruelas/Reuters
Former Governor of Florida Charlie Crist answers a question during a University of Southern California's symposium in September. Some think Crist, a Republican turned independent, may run for Governor again as a Democrat against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.

Ever see a couple go through a nasty divorce, and then one side gets angry and starts bringing up old history as the other tries to move on in life with someone else?

Well, that's sort of what the Republican Party of Florida is going through with former Gov. Charlie Crist, who ended his relationship with his long-time party while running for Senate in 2010. Now that Crist, an independent, is getting cozy with Democrats, the state GOP is shouting to anyone who will listen that Democrats would make a big mistake to be spouse No. 2.

When Crist says something nice about President Barack Obama, the state GOP immediately shoots out a press release with something not so nice Crist said about Obama when he was a Republican. If Crist endorses a Democratic candidate, the party reminds people Crist used to say he was a Ronald Reagan Republican. There's strong speculation that Crist, 56, will challenge Gov. Rick Scott as a Democrat in 2014. He has dismissed talk of a potential return to politics, saying he won't even think about his future until after Jan. 1.

"I just think Charlie Crist is bad for the state of Florida," said state GOP Chairman Lenny Curry. "He's someone who's trying to recreate himself. These are serious times. At any level, we don't want to see Charlie Crist back in office, particularly in a position of leadership. It wouldn't be good for Florida, regardless of your ideology."

The idea is this: defeat Crist before he can re-emerge as a political candidate with a D next to his name. The unusual part is Crist isn't a candidate and the attacks began before the 2012 election was decided. It breaks traditional election strategy for a party to begin airing campaign ads for the next election cycle while in the middle of another.

"I don't recall it ever being done," said David Johnson, a Tallahassee-based Republican political consultant. "It is unusual and it is unprecedented, but so is Charlie Crist."

After Crist endorsed Obama and was preparing to speak at the Democratic National Convention, the state GOP paid for a statewide television ad to knock him down. The ad showed video of Crist praising prominent Republicans like former Gov. Jeb Bush, former President George W. Bush and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. It also showed Crist saying he is pro-life and pro-gun, and ends with him saying, "I'm as conservative as you can get."

Crist agrees that level of attention he's receiving from his former party is unusual.

"I've never heard about people running television ads against a non-candidate, just to put it in perspective," Crist said.

But despite his denials, Crist is acting like someone getting ready for a run by remaining in the public eye and building political favors.

Not only did Crist speak at the Democrats' convention, but he made campaign appearances with the president and other Democrats, held media calls criticizing Republican nominee Mitt Romney and backed several other Democratic candidates, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Patrick Murphy, who beat incumbent Congressman Allen West in a race West in challenging in court.

"He was a pretty darn active surrogate, and a lot of times it was things we didn't even ask him to do," said Steve Schale, who was an adviser on Obama's Florida campaign. "He was raising his hand looking for more things to do."

Schale believes the Republican strategy might backfire, saying the only people even thinking about the 2014 election are hardcore partisans. Democratic activists who have opposed Crist for years might start thinking he's not so bad if Republicans hate him so much.

"If it does anything at this point, it probably helps Crist with a potential Democratic base who are trying to get their arms around him being a Democrat," said Schale. "If they're beating him up, he can't be that bad."

The point Curry is trying to make is that Democrats shouldn't be fooled into thinking Crist is one of them.

"I haven't heard him disavow his conservative views. I have yet to hear him say that he's a liberal," Curry said. "It's just somehow we have this lifelong conservative with a record of conservatism embracing President Barack Obama and others who are completely opposed to what he said he stood for then."

Asked before the election if he was supporting any Republican candidates this year, Crist replied, "Let me think about that."

As the election ended, Crist immediately took up a popular issue that differentiates him from Scott. And it's one where Republicans can't find quotes from the past that contradict his message. Crist criticized Scott for not extending early voting hours and after the election held a press conference with a Democratic legislator to call for election changes to make it easier to vote.

While people criticize Republicans and Scott for cutting the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, Crist can remind voters that he extended early voting hours four years ago to help alleviate long lines, and he angered his then-fellow Republicans in doing so.

Crist may not be a candidate yet, but he is still getting help making sure his name and face are still in the public eye. Crist's boss, John Morgan of the law firm Morgan & Morgan, has plastered Crist's face on billboards across the state and has featured him in television ads with feel-good messages thanking teachers and urging people to drive safely.

Crist can get the free exposure because he isn't in office and hasn't announced plans to run for one.

"The unbelievable thing is that Morgan and Crist can do this and keep a straight face," said Johnson, who sees the exposure as a way of helping Crist with a future political run. "It's such a blatant suck up. John Morgan and Charlie Crist at this point have nothing they can do for teachers. He might as well just come out and say 'Charlie Crist — he's for Santa.'"

Crist is well aware of the attacks, but shrugs them off.

"You don't let it affect you personally. I know that it's political. If people want to criticize somebody who wants to work with others for the betterment of all, that's sad for them," Crist said. "It really doesn't bother me. That may sound odd — everybody would rather be complimented than castigated, but it really doesn't concern me. I know what I believe and I know how I feel and I feel the duty to communicate it."

Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington

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