Primary will test Crist's support among Democrats

By Brendan Farrington, AP Political Writer
Published On: Aug 25 2014 09:17:04 PM EDT
Updated On: Aug 26 2014 02:19:46 AM EDT


MIAMI -

Arlene Ustin is a hardcore Democrat and she'd like nothing more than to see Republican Gov. Rick Scott defeated in November.

But she's not supporting Republican-turned-Democrat former Gov. Charlie Crist - yet.

First there's the matter of Tuesday's primary, where Crist faces former Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich.

Crist needs to win big to show that Democrats have accepted his political conversion. If Rich gets a sizable portion of the vote despite poor name recognition and a fraction of the money Crist has raised, it could be a bad sign for the former governor who is trying to revive his political career with a new party.

Ustin hopes Rich is her party's nominee to challenge Scott, but she recognizes that Crist is the favorite. She says she will support Crist if he's nominated, but it will take some healing. She, like other Rich supporters, doesn't like that Crist refused to debate lifelong Democrat Rich and virtually ignored her as a candidate.

"It's insulting," said Ustin, 72, a Delray Beach retiree. "I will be out there for him in some way. It can't be the way I am for Nan because she's just exceptional, but I definitely I will because the bigger picture is to help Florida."

Many Democrats may be wrestling with similar misgivings.

"The question is whether they're going to get behind a candidate who is a Johnny-come-lately who still hasn't sold himself as a viable, principled Democratic candidate," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. "He has avoided his Democratic party challenger in the primary and thus has avoided the issues that matter to the core Democratic constituency in this race. "

Former Florida Democratic Party chairman and ex-Sen. Rod Smith, who ran for governor in 2006, agrees it was a mistake for Crist to ignore Rich.

"There should have been debates. People should have heard the message from both sides," Smith said. "It would have generated a great deal more interest. Not having debates is a bad strategy any time it's practiced."

If Rich should pull off an upset, it will be a stunning defeat and the end of Crist's political comeback. It would also force Scott to rethink his strategy. He has spent millions of dollars attacking Crist with the assumption he will win the nomination.

But most observers don't expect a Rich upset. The question now is how many Democrats will stick with Crist if he is the party's nominee.

Debra Hammett says she won't. If it's a choice between Crist and Scott, she'll leave that portion of her ballot blank, she said, even though she wants Scott out of office.

"I don't like Charlie Crist. I haven't liked him since Day 1," said Hammett, a 57-year-old retired health care worker from Lake Worth. "I'm not going to vote. I will not support Crist if he wins. No, no, no, no.'

Still, there are other Democratic voters who are firmly behind him. Despite his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, in which he at first he criticized President Barack Obama's federal spending and health care policies while telling voters he was as conservative as they come, Crist was a moderate governor. Crist later dropped out of GOP Senate primary and ran as an independent, quickly moving back to the political center.

A lot of Democrats supported the Republican version of Crist, and it's clear he still excites many of them.

"It's Charlie Crist! Our future governor!" exclaimed Yuvonne Martin, a 62-year-old nurse practitioner from Miami Gardens, when she saw Crist arrive at her church Sunday.

"He's for the people. He is a proactive individual for the needy people. I work in the health care system and I know he's made a difference when he was governor - and also for education for our kids," she said.

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