Charlie Crist, the once and certainly hoping-to-be-future governor of Florida, is riding high at the moment, dreaming of a return to Tallahassee -- but he's about to draw fire from both the left and the right.
Crist is certainly gaining ground with Democrats, despite spending most of his political career as a Republican before moving over to no party affiliation after Marco Rubio caught him in the Republican primary battle for the U.S. Senate in 2010. After endorsing Barack Obama for re-election and speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Crist switched to the Democrats late in 2012 and attended the presidential inauguration in January.
Crist also scored a victory when Allison Tant was selected as the new chairwoman of the Florida Democrats since former state CFO Alex Sink, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2010 who is mulling over running again, backed Alan Clendenin for the position.
A poll released in mid-January from Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic polling firm, showed Crist taking 53 percent when matched up against Gov. Rick Scott who only garners 39 percent. The poll also found that Crist had a commanding lead over his possible Democratic primary opponents. Crist took a whopping 52 percent in PPPs survey of Democratic primary voters with Sink in distant second with 18 percent. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio took third with 13 percent followed by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer with 4 percent. Former Democrat Senate Leader Nan Rich, the only candidate already in the race, took a measly 1 percent.
But another candidate is looming on the horizon who was not included in the poll. Manny Diaz, who like Crist ran with no party affiliation before joining the Democrats, served two terms as mayor of Miami and won national recognition for his leadership. Having endorsed him and speaking on his behalf at the 2008 Democratic convention, Diaz also has ties with Obama and several other left-of-center leaders, including New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Diaz appears very likely to enter the fray and he and Rich will certainly remind Democratic primary voters about Crists past, including his strong conservative stances on a number of issues. Expect Crists Democratic opponents to jog the memory of liberal primary voters that Crist has previously been pro-life on abortion and an opponent of expanded rights for same-sex couples.
With Democrats up in arms on the issue, Crist will also take flak on guns, including signing a bill that prevented businesses from banning employees from bringing firearms to the workplace as long as they had concealed weapons permits.
While hes currently stuck in the polls, Scott is starting to develop his line of attack against Crist. In many ways its a replay of what propelled Scott to victories over Bill McCollum and Sink in 2010 -- a focus on job creation. In recent weeks, Scott has clearly attempted to contrast his record on jobs with Crist. Scott has repeatedly noted that when Crist took office in January 2007 Florida had a 3.5 percent unemployment rate. When Crist left in January 2011, that rate was almost 12 percent. With the unemployment rate down to 8 percent in December 2012, Scott is already hammering home the differences between his record and Crists.
Crist has drawn attacks from left and right before, namely in 2010 when he was under fire from Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek and Rubio. Despite solid leads in the primary polls against Rubio, Crist collapsed and eventually continued his campaign with no party affiliation. In the summer of 2010, Crist had healthy leads over Rubio and Meek in the polls. On Election Day, Rubio took 49 percent while Crist took a distant second with less than 30 percent.
As he runs for office yet again, Crist is riding high for the moment. But hes pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory before. With more than a year and a half until Election Day, his leads in the Democratic primary and in the general election should not be taken for granted.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News.