Kingsley Guy: Crist brings charisma, but tough fight looms

It's official. Charlie Crist is running for governor.

If Crist wins, his victory would represent one of the most remarkable political resurrections in the history of the state. It's a long way to November 2014, but given the current tenor of Florida politics, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat has at least an even-money chance of defeating the GOP incumbent, Rick Scott.

I first met Crist in 1998 at an Editorial Board meeting at the Sun Sentinel, and wondered whether he was delusional. Crist was giving up a safe Florida Senate seat in St. Petersburg to make what looked like a quixotic run for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Bob Graham. Crist had no chance of winning, but during the meeting he exuded confidence that he would unseat Graham, one of the most respected and popular politicians to ever hold office in Florida.

Predictably, Crist lost the election by a million votes, but he wasn't tilting at windmills. Instead, Crist was developing name recognition, ingratiating himself to party leaders by challenging Graham, and developing a statewide base of funding support.

The eventual result: election as education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006. Delusional? Hardly. Crist knew exactly what he was doing when he challenged Graham.

Crist's meteoric ascent ended in 2010, with the rise of the tea-party movement. Marco Rubio bested him for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate, so Crist ran as an independent, finishing a distant second to Rubio in a three-person race.

But, Crist is back as a Democrat, bringing some prodigious political skills with him. Expect fascinating political theater in the year ahead.

No politician in Florida is better at working a crowd than Crist. Like Bill Clinton, Crist has the ability to shake hands, look a voter in the eye, and make him feel as though he's the most important person in the the room. It's a skill some politicians discount in the age of Twitter and multimillion-dollar advertising budgets, but it's a skill that could prove invaluable in Crist's efforts to win over voters who question his sincerity and convictions because of his party switching.

Conversely, Gov. Rick Scott lacks the personal touch.

In his first campaign for governor, Scott looked more like a deer in the headlights than a person with the skills necessary to run the nation's fourth-largest state. Scott has gotten more comfortable in his public and TV appearances, but he's no Demosthenes, that's for sure.

This helps explain Scott's dismal poll numbers. In a recent Public Policy Polling survey, Scott's approval rating stood at 33 percent and his disapproval rating at 55 percent.

The governor, however, has a record to run on, and while Democrats may see this as a liability for him, Scott has a significant message to deliver in the year ahead.

Scott entered office on a promise he would bring jobs back to Florida through tax and regulatory reform, and statistics argue in his favor. The Great Recession hit Florida harder than most states. Unemployment rose to 11.4 percent, but today it's down to 7 percent, which is below the national average of 7.3 percent. Indeed, Florida has bounced back better than any of the states hit hardest by the Great Recession.

Democrats will claim Scott and the GOP-dominated Legislature had nothing to do with the relatively low unemployment number. They'll say it's all a result of the recovering business cycle, or even the national economic policies of the Obama administration. The latter is a curious argument considering the current national economic recovery is the most tepid since before World War II.

If the Florida recovery is solely a by-product of the business cycle and national policies, why aren't the other hardest-hit states keeping pace with Florida?

Clearly, they aren't.

South Carolina's unemployment rate still stands at 8.1 percent, Arizona's at 8.3 percent, North Carolina's at 8.7 percent, California's at 8.9 percent, Rhode Island's at 9.1 percent, Illinois' at 9.2 percent, and Nevada's at 9.5 percent.

Can all the credit for the sharp drop in Florida's unemployment rate be given to Scott alone? Of course not, but the positive business climate he and the Legislature have helped foster certainly hasn't hurt.

Watch Kingsley Guy, whose column appears every other Sunday, on Barry Epstein Live, http://www.wrpbitv.com., 10 a.m. Fridays, or archived on the site. 

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