Former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist courts Florida Democrats in primary

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist arrives to early vote with St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Rick Kriseman, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in St. Petersburg, Fla.


Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist faces the first big test Tuesday in his quest to reclaim his old job, when Democratic primary voters decide whether they're satisfied with the former Republican as their nominee.

If Crist secures the nod, he'll face incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott in what promises to be one of the year's most expensive races.

Before he can formally pivot to the general election, though, Crist needs to dispatch former Democratic state Sen. Nan Rich in Tuesday's primary election. He's expected to win handily, but his margin of victory will be scrutinized for signs of lukewarm support among his new party as he begins a bruising general election in which he'll need all the help he can get.

Crist's approach to the primary, thus far, has essentially been to ignore it. He's trained his fire on Scott instead of Rich in an attempt to soften the governor's support before the general election begins.

Scott has repaid the favor in kind, saturating Florida's airwaves with between $8 million and $11 million worth of ads attacking Crist's record and his decision to change parties, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The melee has left Rich feeling a bit left out.

"My opponents are extremely negative toward each other. People are noticing it and they're not liking it, and they're looking for someone else," Rich told the Times. "Both of them have totally ignored me. We'll see how that works out."

Crist and Rich were both in South Florida this weekend, mining votes in some of the state's most populous (and heavily Democratic) counties just a few days before voters head to the polls. Both candidates attended the same service at New Birth Baptist Church in Miami on Sunday, with Crist sitting just a few pews away from his primary foe, according to the Associated Press.

At an earlier church service in Miami Gardens, Crist assured the audience that his political conversion was genuine.

"I've seen the light and I am a Democrat," he said, according to the Associated Press. "A Florida Democrat! Praise God!"

Scott's team has tried to raise expectations for Crist's primary finish, laying the groundwork for an argument that Democrats aren't too keen on their party-switching nominee. Tim Saler, Scott's deputy campaign manager, predicted Crist would get at least 81 percent of the vote on Tuesday, according to the Times.

Crist is betting that Democrats' hostility toward Scott will be enough to overcome any reticence they may have about voting for a former Republican.

"The base is excited because of Rick Scott," he told the Times. "He's a four-year disaster."

Scott has never been a terribly popular governor, consistently struggling in his approval ratings since taking office in 2011. But while Crist enjoyed a moderate lead in the polls shortly after he declared his candidacy, the incumbent has recently closed the gap, even vaulting ahead in some surveys. A CBS News/New York Times/YouGov survey released last month showed Scott ahead of Crist by five points, 48 to 43 percent.

It's been a remarkable turnabout, due in no small part to the Scott campaign's decision to attack Crist early and often. A millionaire many times over, the governor is likely to sustain the barrage through November, dipping into his own pockets if need be.

Crist himself has been no fundraising slouch, though. He's raised $6.4 million in campaign contributions to date, and a separate political action committee that accepts unlimited donations has amassed more than $14 million, according to the Times.

Crist assumed the Florida governorship in 2007 as a Republican, serving one four-year term. He decided to run for the Senate in 2010 instead of pursuing reelection, but he was defeated in the Republican primary by now-Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. He faced Rubio and Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek in the general election as an independent, edging out Meek but losing to Rubio.

He cemented his political conversion in late 2012, when he officially joined the Democratic Party after supporting President Obama's reelection bid.