By Steve Rothaus

The largest gay-rights groups in Florida and the nation endorsed Democrat Charlie Crist on Thursday, a turnaround for the former Republican governor who once helped enshrine a same-sex marriage ban in the state's constitution.

In accepting the support of Equality Florida Action PAC and the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Crist pledged to pressure Florida's Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi, to stop fighting a lawsuit seeking to overturn the same-sex marriage ban voters approved in 2008.

"I think it's important to be able to use the influence of the office of governor in a positive, effective way," Crist said in a press conference in Miami Beach, "and encourage the attorney general, No. 1, to get rid of these lawsuits -- I think it's a waste of time."

Crist said "Floridians want fairness and this is an issue of fundamental fairness."

"We need to allow people to love who they love," he said. "Who are we to tell anyone who to love? Or for that matter, who to marry?" Crist's support of gay marriage is a reversal from his position in 2010 when he was running for the U.S. Senate against Republican candidate Marco Rubio, who won the election. Crist then called marriage "a sacred institution" and said marriage is "between a man and a woman."

PAC chairman Stratton Pollitzer said his group has embraced Crist's changed position.

"We're very appreciative of how forthright the governor has been about his positions in the past and his willingness to apologize and move forward," Pollitzer said. "As a gay-rights organization, our entire strategy is built upon the premise that people can change and will move towards equality."

Equality Florida says Crist has been a longtime LGBT-rights advocate. While governor, he dropped his support for Florida's gay adoption ban and worked with the state Department of Children and Families to stop enforcement. During his Senate campaign, Crist supported repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and passage of a law that would prevent LGBT-related workplace discrimination.

Crist served as governor from 2007 to 2011. During his Senate run, he left the GOP. Eventually, he endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection in 2012 and became a Democrat.

Last November, Crist officially declared his candidacy for governor, challenging former state Sen. Nan Rich, of Broward, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination. The primary will be Aug. 26. Whoever wins will face incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Nov. 4.

Rich has been a longtime supporter of gay marriage, HIV/AIDS funding and other LGBT-rights issues.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a year ago that the federal government must recognize legal same-sex marriages, Scott said he would continue to support Florida's 2008 constitutional ban. "Look, it's the law of the land. Voters in 2008 decided we're going to be a traditional marriage state," Scott told the Tampa Bay Times. "Look, I've been married since I was 19. I believe in traditional marriage."

In tandem with the Equality Florida announcement, Human Rights Campaign also endorsed Crist.

"We are honored to stand with Charlie Crist in his campaign to be the next governor of Florida," HRC National Field Director Marty Rouse said in a statement.

Some LGBT people were not pleased with Thursday's endorsements. "I'm going to continue to support Nan," Broward LGBT/HIV activist Michael Emanuel Rajner. "I trust Equality Florida is doing the best for the community to advance rights, legislation, protections. Unfortunately elections are not always what we would want them to be."

Miami Herald political writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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