LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Charlie Crist could barely walk through the crowd without stopping to greet, hug and mug for pictures.
Democratic activists packing the Disney convention hotel Saturday at their state conference flocked to the former Republican governor.
Crist was loose and chatty. He threw his arms around Nan Rich, of Weston, his likely Democratic governor’s race rival. He clowned around with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
An aide tried to move him along at one point. Crist was more than 30 minutes late for a meeting with party bigwigs. Crist demurred.
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“This is more important,” he said, leaning in to hug yet another white-haired lady.
If Crist, the formerly self-described Ronald Reagan Republican, faces hurdles uniting his new party for another gubernatorial run, there was little sign of it among the more than 1,000 Democratic activists gathered.
“People say to me all the time, ’Yeah, but what about the activists and Crist?’ ” said Bob Poe, former state party chairman, who only a few years ago blasted Crist in press release after press release.
“Look right there,” Poe said, pointing to a scrum lining up to shake Crist’s hand and pose with him for a photo. “I’m not worried about the activists. I can’t even get him across the room.”
The enthusiasm, or at least acceptance, of Crist wasn’t universal among this group of hard-core Democrats, but many fondly recalled his tenure and record as a moderate Republican governor.
“I believe voting rights are extremely important, and he helped restore the voting rights of ex-felons,” said University of Florida student Christina Ford of Safety Harbor.
“Who got Obama elected in 2008?” Martin County Democratic State Committeeman David Dew asked. “If Charlie Crist had not extended early voting, Obama probably would not have won.”
Crist, 57, did not give an address to all 1,300 delegates at Disney, where activists distributed “Pink Slip Rick” buttons and “Hillary 2016” T-shirts. Still, he sucked the air out of the room.
And backers of Rich, a former state senator, are miffed.
“If people would stop the negative comments all the time that he is the only person that can win, she might have a chance,” said Susan Smith of Odessa, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.
Smith said Crist “has Jeb Bush ideas on education” and “I haven’t heard him say he’s pro-choice, I haven’t heard him say enough about gun safety. He lost a lot of jobs when he was governor.”
Perhaps most importantly, she said, Crist left the governor’s office to run for Senate, that is “he abandoned the job and Florida once before to run for Senate and that’s a big part of why Rick Scott is governor today.”
Smith’s criticisms are not going to go away.
The Republican Party of Florida will make sure of that.
The state GOP and Scott’s campaign, which are virtually indistinguishable, plan to spend as much as $100 million on his re-election bid. And a good amount of that money will be spent attacking Crist in the Democratic primary, perhaps as soon as he announces early next week.
Florida GOP staffers made sure to stalk Democrats at their own conference, where Chair Lenny Curry predicted that Republicans will educate all Floridians about the former governor’s record.
“Charlie Crist has spent a career speaking the language of the far right and he has flipped on every issue,” Curry said. “His record is one of failed leadership. He is someone who, when the going gets tough, isn’t someone who sticks with it.”
Republicans are even mulling steering more money to Rich to even the odds.
Most polls show Crist comfortably leading Gov. Scott in a head-to-head race, while Rich narrowly trails the governor.
Rich announced her candidacy 18 months ago, but remains little known across the state and had just $63,000 left in the bank as of early October.
Another Rich supporter, Kathie Jaskolski of Vero Beach, said she wished Rich had a better chance.
But she and many others said they could live with Crist as the nominee.
“Either people don’t know Nan, or they hate Rick Scott,” Jaskolski said. “Nobody’s out there saying: ’Wow! Charlie Crist!’ ”
Still, Crist made sure to try to wow people here, roaming the halls, shaking hands and small-talking all comers. Along the way, he had to do some explaining, reassuring Democrats that he’s one of them.
“Judge me by my deeds,” Crist told a meeting of the party’s black caucus. “People will say, ‘Charlie said this and then he said that.’ Judge me by my deeds, and what I have done. You know what you’re going to get if I decide to do this. All you have to do is look at my record.”
Likewise, when asked Friday night about campaigning as a pro-life Republican in the past, Crist said, “I’m pro-life, but when it comes to a woman’s rights, I’m hands off.”
African-Americans account for roughly 28 percent of the Democratic primary electorate and will be critical in choosing the nominee.
Crist was introduced to the black caucus by Tony Hill, a former state senator from Jacksonville, who told the crowd Crist as governor and attorney general was a consistent ally for African-American legislators. At his gubernatorial inauguration, Crist even refused to play Florida’s racially-tinged state song, Old Folks at Home, commonly known as Suwannee River.
“We have a person that we know not only will stand by us, but will stand for us, and stand with us,” Hill said.
Rich, introduced to the group by state Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, stressed that she has been a Democrat all her life and consistently fought for equal rights, fairness, better schools and children’s services. To those skeptical about her viability, Rich said she has already built a formidable grass-roots network.
“This is a people-powered campaign, not the campaign of Gov. Scott that already has $18.5 million in his pay-to-play till,” Rich said.
Even as a Republican governor, Crist enjoyed strong support among black leaders. He was the only Republican governor to publicly advocate for President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, which helped cost Crist crucial GOP support before he left the party.
Crist’s standing among black voters improved substantially in 2012 when he enthusiastically backed Obama and spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
Still, many black voters don’t know him, said Miami Gardens state Sen. Oscar Braynon.
“The black vote is up for grabs, and you probably don’t win the Democratic primary without it,” Braynon said. He pointed out that Crist’s tough-on-crime-stance as a state senator in the 1990s could become a sore point because of his nickname at the time, “Chain Gang Charlie.”
“That nickname doesn’t help,” Braynon said.
Also, Crist has a strained relationship with former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who ran as a Democrat in the 2010 Senate race. Crist, trailing Marco Rubio in the GOP primary, left the party, became an independent and helped cost Meek crucial votes.
Party insiders expect Meek, who did not return calls, to endorse Rich.
Still, Rich has yet to prove she is a viable alternative to Crist. Certainly, all the buzz among the Democrats at Disney World centered on the former Republican.
“The grass-roots are going to be excited about the election no matter who our nominee is,” said Mitch Ceasar, Democratic Chairman of Broward County. “Rick Scott is our greatest unifying feature.”