The race for governor of Florida could hang on one issue: Obamacare.
Already Gov. Rick Scott has spent more than $4 million on television ads reminding voters that his chief rival for the job, former Gov. Charlie Crist, enthusiastically supports the controversial health law.
Crist's response is hard to find anywhere else in the country. Unlike nearly every Democrat in a closely contested race, Crist isn't retreating from Obamacare or waffling. Instead, he's embracing the Affordable Care Act, hoping to turn it into an advantage.
"I don't shy away from it. I don't back away from it. I don't apologize for it. It's the right thing to do," Crist said during a recent stop in Palm Beach County. At a Broward appearance, he brought up TV ads "where [Scott] has me saying [Obamacare] is great? You know why? Because it's great."
Scott's strategy of using Obamacare as a weapon to bludgeon the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge him is straight from the Republican playbook for 2014.
Matt Moon, the Republican governor's campaign communications director, said in a statement that Crist's comments about the health-care law show he "is completely disconnected from the pain that Florida families are feeling because of Obamacare. This failed law's higher taxes, higher premiums and broken promises are impossible for him to defend."
Public opinion polls generally have shown that a majority of Florida voters don't like Obamacare, with Democrats more supportive and Republicans strongly opposed. But the Florida surveys were taken before the March 31 deadline for signups with numbers that far exceeded expectations. Polling also shows that many people don't want the law repealed.
The politics aren't clear-cut. Strategists are divided, generally along party lines, about whether Scott or Crist has the winning strategy. But both are playing the issue smartly, they say.
"It is risky for Charlie Crist to bank his campaign strategy on a defense of Obamacare," said Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University. "But it is also a sensible direction for Crist to go, because he's trying to get his bona-fides with Democrats."
Marty Kiar, a Democratic Broward County commissioner, said the strategy of "embracing Obamacare is incredibly smart. It's going to be used against you anyway. You might as well embrace it."
He said there's little to lose, because people who hate Obamacare aren't likely to vote for a Democratic candidate for governor anyway. There's plenty to be gained, he said, if a Democratic candidate can whip up enthusiasm among the party's base, which is important in a midterm election between presidential contests when Democratic turnout falls.
Slade O'Brien, Florida director of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group that's one of the nation's leading Obamacare opponents, said the issue would end up hurting supporters of the law in the November election.
"The issue highly motivates the conservative base," said O'Brien, who lives in Boca Raton.
O'Brien said Democrats are fooling themselves when they hope "the news will just get better as time goes on as it relates to the law" and figure as a result they'll end up weathering the Obamacare storm in November.
If Republicans play it correctly, Foreman said an anti-Obamacare message could help drive up Republican turnout. But he cautioned that there is some risk for Scott. "If he gets too negative on this issue or any other issue, he may drive the moderates away from him."
Terrie Rizzo, chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, said Republicans may overplay their hand. "If they keep going on and on and on about how bad Obamacare is, they risk the voters getting Obamacare-attack fatigue."
O'Brien said Crist is embracing the issue because it motivates people on the political left who are the committed activists in the Democratic Party, some of whom are still skeptical of Crist. He was elected governor as a Republican in 2006, ran as an independent/no party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010, and then switched to the Democratic Party, and support for Obamacare shows he is one of them, Foreman and O'Brien said.
If Crist abandoned Obamacare, they said he'd alienate too many Democrats that he needs. "I don't think Charlie can run away from it at this point without alienating his folks on the ground who he does not have a longstanding relationship with," O'Brien said. Crist faces former Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston, who lags in fundraising and in polls, in the August primary.
The textbook strategy for Democrats in tough races is to offer general support for the law, oppose repeal, and call for making improvements. That's the strategy that's been followed by U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a freshman Democrat who represents northern Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties.
O'Brien said Democrats who attempt to sell the notion that Obamacare wasn't a factor are wrong. "It was one of the defining issues," he said, and motivated Republicans to turn out and vote.
Crist isn't entertaining the notion that Obamacare has flaws that need fixing. Asked by an audience member at a recent appearance at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches if there are "any changes or tweaks" he'd make, Crist demurred. "I'm sure that there are, but I'm a positive guy. I'm an optimistic person," he said. "What I would emphasize is what's good about it."
Kiar said that is "much smarter than the politics of the other Democrats who are running away from it or shying away from it."
O'Brien said Obamacare isn't going away as an issue. And with the latest polls — released Thursday by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showing the race tied and from Rasmussen Reports showing it within the survey's margin of error — indicating the race neck-and-neck, the issue could make a big difference even if it motivates just a small number of voters.
"Things can swing," O'Brien said. "Our elections tend to be extremely close."