By Marc Caputo
Charlie Crist's career as a Republican was ruined four years ago after he hugged President Barack Obama onstage; now he says it could be his salvation as a Democrat.
Running again for his old post with a new party affiliation, Crist is being embraced by another aspect of the president: former Florida campaign workers for Obama, who has twice carried the Sunshine State.
At least seven former Obama Florida campaign workers -- from his pollster to a top political consultant to media experts to his fundraiser -- now form the nucleus of Crist's new campaign team. And top Obama donors, pleased with Crist's help on the campaign in 2012, are expected to follow.
"I've always liked Charlie Crist, even when he was a Republican," said Ralph Patino, a Coral Gables lawyer who helped the Obama campaign's Futuro Fund raise $30 million last year for Hispanic outreach.
Patino, who hosted a Friday Democratic National Committee fundraiser headlined by Obama, invited Crist the day before when the governor stopped by and asked for his support.
"The Obama world has an interest in Crist -- they had him speak at the Democratic National Convention," Patino said. "That showed me, even back then, that they had an interest in Charlie Crist."
Crist's main rival for the Democratic nomination, former Weston state Sen. Nan Rich, points out that not everyone who supported Obama backs Crist.
"Barack Obama is not running for governor," Rich said. "Nan Rich and Charlie Crist are."
Rich joked that she hoped she's "not being punished for supporting Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. But I supported Obama then and in 2012. Charlie Crist didn't support Barack Obama in 2008; he was still a Republican."
And, at the time, Crist was jockeying to become then-Republican candidate John McCain's running mate.
The following year, in February 2009, Crist put himself in the president's good graces by becoming the only Republican governor to stand onstage with the president and advocate for his stimulus plan, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It cost Crist dearly -- especially the brief onstage embrace with the president in Fort Myers. Republican Marco Rubio used the stage craft and the policy embrace of Crist to successfully portray him as unfit for the party when the two squared off in the 2010 race for U.S. Senate.
Crist, seeing his poll numbers tank, bolted from the GOP and became an independent. He only changed his registration to Democrat in December 2012.
"The hug killed me," Crist said. "Now it could save me." But Obama's support could be trickier for Crist if he wins the primary against Rich and heads into the general election backed by an unpopular White House. Obama's poll numbers have been tanking amid the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act's website -- Healthcare.gov -- and the president's repeated fib that those who like their health insurance could keep it under Obamacare.
Millions of Americans -- about 5 percent of those insured -- are losing their current health plans as insurance companies put them in new Obamacare-compliant plans that, for some, could cost more out of pocket. Others could pay less.
For the first time ever, a majority of those surveyed -- 52 percent -- believe Obama is not honest and trustworthy, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll that found the president's job-approval index at an all-time low of -15.
"Part of why Crist is so dominant in the Democratic Party is because Obama has so clearly embraced him," said Tom Jensen, executive director of Public Policy Polling, which frequently surveys for Democrats and liberal groups.
The sentiment among Democrats, Jensen said is: "If Obama's OK with him, we're OK, too, even if we're suspicious."
But in a general election, Jensen said, Obama's support "right now would hurt. But it's hard to say what the political climate will be like in Florida next year."
Crist said he'll welcome Obama's public and private support at anytime, though he acknowledged the president misspoke and said the "rollout could have been handled better."
Before 2012, Crist left a long trail of anti-Obamacare quotes. Republicans say it's evidence of Crist's reversals that characterize him as a self-serving and untrustworthy "opportunist" -- a label from Florida Democrats that Gov. Rick Scott's campaign is advertising already.
Polls right now indicate Crist would easily beat Rich and would then beat Scott by as many as 10 percentage points. But experts say the race will likely tighten, and Democrats caution that Scott will be tough to beat.
With Scott planning to spend as much as $100 million, Crist's campaign team has acknowledged it won't be able to match Scott dollar for dollar but it plans to use the same voter-turnout techniques that twice helped Obama carry Florida.
The former Florida Obama campaign team includes:
- Steve Schale, Obama's state campaign manager in 2008 and senior campaign advisor in 2012.
- Jim Margolis, a top Obama media consultant for both campaigns.
- Dylan Sumner, a Florida mail consultant who worked on both campaigns.
- John Anzalone, pollster for Obama on both campaigns.
- Kevin Cate, an Obama's regional spokesman in 2008.
- Franco Ripple, a 2008 Obama campaign field organizer and former White House advance man.
- Jessica Clark, Obama's 2012 Florida finance director.
Ashley Walker, who was Obama's deputy state campaign manager in 2008 and state campaign manager in 2012, isn't working for Crist at the moment and said she would make that decision at a later date. Walker said that Crist time and again earned the campaign's trust in 2012 by being ever-ready and very helpful.
One example: the campaign called Crist the night before a morning Tampa event that almost fell apart, and he rearranged his schedule to help out, said Eric Jotkoff, a 2012 Florida spokesman for Obama's campaign.
"Crist was extremely accessible and accommodating," Jotkoff said. "The president and Crist had a great working relationship. And it started early on when Gov. Crist supported the Recovery Act when no other Republican would. The president appreciated that."
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