TALLAHASSEE -- The governor’s race is barreling forward, but one key aspect of Democrat Charlie Crist’s campaign remains a mystery.
Who will be his No. 2?
If Crist wins the primary on Aug. 26 as is expected, he will have just nine days to designate a lieutenant governor as his running mate. That gives him less than two months to vet candidates and make his choice.
The lieutenant governor job in Florida comes with no official responsibilities, except to take the place of a governor who is incapacitated. Incumbent Gov. Rick Scott left the position open for eight months after former Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll resigned in 2013.
But Crist’s pick could make a difference in the November election, even while most Floridians will vote the top of the ticket.
Observers say Crist, who held elected office as a Republican before changing parties last year, needs to choose a running mate who appeals to the Democratic base. If not, Florida may be headed for a repeat of the 2010 election, when low voter turnout in left-leaning South Florida derailed Democrat Alex Sink’s bid to become governor.
“Charlie Crist’s biggest concern is finding someone who is going to bring the Democratic faithful to the polls,” University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith said.
Crist told the Herald/Times he had not offered the job to anybody yet. He would not say who he is considering, only that chemistry and competency would be important factors in the decision.
His time frame for making a selection?
“Probably sooner rather than later,” Crist said. “It might be nice to have two people running around [campaigning] instead of just one.”
The speculation has already begun.
Many observers expect Crist to choose a running mate with ties to South Florida, the most Democratic part of the state.
One potential pick: former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat.
Gelber has become one of Crist’s closest allies and serves as an adviser on his gubernatorial campaign. A former prosecutor and federal investigator, Gelber has a command of policy issues Crist often seems to lack.
He would not say if he had discussed the position with Crist.
“I am only focused on trying to help Charlie Crist get elected,” he told the Herald/Times. “Rick Scott is a dark cloud over our state.”
Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, of Oakland Park, has also been the subject of speculation. But Smith said he had not spoken with the Crist campaign, and was not sure if he was being vetted.
Smith was considered for the job by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis in 2006, he said.
“The reason my name keeps coming up is because I’m black, I’m from Broward, I have a strong base and I have a good record of campaigning,” he said. “[Crist] needs the black community to turn out Obama-style. If that happens, he runs away with the election.”
Henry Crespo, Sr., the president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, said a diverse ticket would energize African-American and Hispanic voters. Selecting a woman would also help, he said.
“If we look at it not only in terms of optics, but of shoring up the base, I would pick either an African-American woman or a Hispanic woman,” Crespo said. “Women tend to vote more than men.”
Two names circulating in Democratic circles: Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Miami-Dade County Democratic Chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein. Both would appeal to women and help Crist win support in the Hispanic community.
Rundle said she was flattered to be mentioned, “but being Dade’s State Attorney is the greatest job in the state of Florida.”
Taddeo-Goldstein did not return calls from the Herald/Times.
Elsewhere in the state, Crist may consider former Orlando police chief Val Demings. Demings launched a bid to become Orange County mayor earlier this year, but withdrew in May. Calls to her office were not returned.
Another Orlando resident who could make the short list: state Sen. Darren Soto.
The 36-year-old attorney acknowledged that his home turf would be fertile ground for picking up votes and engaging Hispanic voters. But Soto said he had not been approached by the Crist campaign, and was focused on his reelection to the Senate.
Former Gov. Bob Graham said Crist will have to choose a running mate with whom he is compatible.
“Chemistry is important,” Graham said. “You have to live with that person politically for four years.”
When Crist last ran for governor in 2006, he made then state Rep. Jeff Kottkamp his running mate.
There were three other finalists, including then state Sen. Lisa Carlton, of Osprey, and Miami journalist Helen Aguirre Ferre. But Crist said he selected Kottkamp, a trial lawyer from Cape Coral, because of their close friendship.
As lieutenant governor, Kottkamp came under fire for racking up more than $1 million in travel expenses. His relationship with Crist later soured.
Susan Smith, a Pasco County resident and president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, isn’t convinced Crist’s 2014 running mate will make a difference to liberal Democrats like herself.
“I would much rather hear him address his policies openly and honestly,” she said, referencing the fact that Crist has refused to debate his primary opponent, former state Sen. Nan Rich.
What about Rich, a former Senate minority leader with Democratic bona fides and a strong base of support in Broward County? Could her name appear on the ticket as Crist’s running mate?
“Sen. Rich is not interested,” said her campaign manager, Sterling Clifford.