Crist appears poised to win Democratic nomination, but Rich perseveres

Charlie Crist, Nan Rich

Between now and Aug. 26, Florida Democrats need to decide if they'll go with their hearts or their minds in the race for their party's nomination for governor.

Tugging at their heartstrings is Nan Rich, a lifelong Democrat and champion of just about every issue important to party members — even when it wasn't politically advantageous or popular.

Aiming at their minds is Charlie Crist, who's transitioned from former Republican governor to advocate of all things Democratic — and is the candidate seen by virtually all political insiders and party financial backers as the one who has a shot at defeating Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Democrats last won a governor's race in 1994, making them hungry for a winner.

WATCH VIDEO: Charlie Crist interview with Sun Sentinel Editorial Board | WATCH VIDEO: Nan Rich interview with Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

Marc Hansen started out supporting Rich, the former Senate Democratic leader from Weston. "I love Nan. I think she's done incredible things."

But Hansen, a member of the Dolphin Democrats gay and lesbian political club, has changed his mind and is voting for Crist. "I want to be behind a winner."

With early voting beginning this week — on Monday in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties and Friday in Broward — the conventional wisdom is that Crist will win the Aug. 26 primary to become his new party's standard-bearer against Scott.

Rich's supporters object to the notion that Crist has the nomination locked up.

"I think it's very close. Anybody who thinks they can predict it is either a fool or they're being paid to make a prediction." said Joe Kreps, one of the "Nan fans" — the label they apply to themselves. He said the "big story is Nan surging and Charlie fading."

There's little evidence to support that assertion. Rich began running for governor more than two years ago, but never gained much traction. But the moment Crist entered in November, his candidacy turned the Sunshine State's governor's contest the No. 1 race in the country in the 2014 midterm elections.

Since then:

•Crist has raised almost 200 times the amount of money Rich has managed to scrape together. His backers include the donors who write the biggest checks and can raise money from others. The Democratic Governor's Association, the national party entity responsible for aiding its governor candidates nationwide, has already given Crist $1 million.

•Crist often attracts a large news media contingent for his events; few reporters cover Rich.

•Crist has been embraced by the Democratic political establishment. Even Rich concedes that many leaders of the state Democratic Party, and her home-county Democratic Party in Broward, are tacitly behind Crist.

•Public opinion polls show a neck-and-neck race between Crist and Scott, but show Scott would defeat Rich. After running five statewide general election campaigns in the past 16 years, Crist is well known to voters. Surveys show the vast majority of voters don't know anything about Rich.

Once a candidate gets in Rich's position, it becomes difficult to break out of the spiral. Bad showing in public opinion polls because she's unknown. Poor poll numbers make it hard to raise money. With little money it's tough to look credible to the news media or pay for advertising. With little news coverage and advertising, people don't know about the candidate when pollsters call.

Even the Scott campaign operates as if the fight for the Democratic nomination for governor is over and it's a Crist-Scott contest. The governor's campaign and the state Republican Party aim all their television ads at Crist, and send out a constant stream of critical emails about Crist. They rarely mention Rich.

On Wednesday, the Scott campaign dispatched Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera to offer up a dose of Republican counter-programming across the street from a Crist event in Fort Lauderdale, a strategy used previously in Palm Beach County. The Scott campaign has never dispatched Lopez-Cantera to offer Republican perspective at a Rich event.

Crist ignores Rich except when he's pressed by reporters, arguing he needs to devote all his time to the campaign against Scott. He asserts he's the better choice because he has the ability "to communicate effectively, being a known entity to the whole state, having the resources to communicate against somebody [Scott] who's got limitless resources."

And, he said, he agrees with Democrats' values. "I care about and love this state. I really do. If you give me a chance to be your servant again as your governor, I will not let you down," he said. "I was the people's governor. I think that title tells you a lot about my heart and what I care about."

Rich complains often about Crist, lumping him in with Scott as a "failed Republican governor." She emphasizes her standing as a lifelong "true" Democrat — Crist has been a Democrat for 20 months — who hasn't flip-flopped on myriad positions the way Crist has. Today they agree on virtually every issue important to Democratic primary voters.