Charlie Crist all over Web and TV as campaign steps up

After months of running a largely invisible campaign to regain his old job, former Gov. Charlie Crist has suddenly emerged from stealth mode.

• On Monday, his campaign issued a web video meant to counter a video attack from Gov. Rick Scott's campaign. It's a blistering attack in which he says "guys like Rick Scott" caused the Great Recession.

• Starting Tuesday, he's set to begin four days of appearances on national cable TV shows, ranging from Bill O'Reilly on Fox News to Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central and Bill Maher on HBO. He'll be promoting his new book that explains his switch from Republican to Democrat.

• Last week, his campaign made him available, twice, to answer reporters' questions during visits to South Florida. Facing cameras from most of the main TV stations in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, Crist explained he's "excited about running for governor and I think we deserve better as Floridians than we have now" and said he's "a happy warrior, and I look forward to the race, and I'm an optimist."


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The new, frequent Crist appearances are a noticeable departure from the way he's operated since announcing in November his quest to return to the job he held as a Republican from 2007 to 2011. This time he's running as a Democrat.

While Crist has spend the past three months focused on raising campaign cash, Democratic insiders have been grumbling that he hasn't mounted a more visible campaign presence — especially because it was obvious for months before he officially announced that Crist would run for governor.

He has been traveling the state, often out of public view. On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, for example, Crist tweeted a picture of himself with the explanation that he was "Giving thanks for Dr. King at First United Methodist Church of Ft. Lauderdale." The next day, a Crist supporter tweeted about the "great turnout" to see Crist at the Broward County Justice Association. His campaign didn't announce either appearance.

Crist confidantes said they were waiting until they had a campaign infrastructure in place, which has happened with key hires in recent days; that he needed to make his first priority raising money to show he can run a credible challenge to Scott; and that everything is going according to their campaign plan.

"Now that the foundation is in place I think we're going to be seeing more of the candidate down here," said former Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City, a longtime Crist ally. "It's just taken a little time to do all of this. The election is still nine months away. I suspect that voters in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach [counties] are going to get tired of seeing Charlie Crist because he's going to be here so much."

Crist himself used a similar line last week, before a campaign fundraiser at the Greenspoon Marder law firm where Geller is a shareholder.

Asked why he hadn't been holding many public events, Crist said he needed to raise money to fend off the well-financed governor. "I'm trying to do everything I can to have an effort that is able to communicate with the people of our state. And as we continue to move forward, we'll be chatting a lot. You're going to get sick of me," he said. "And I look forward to the opportunity to talk about the issues."

Crist spokesman Kevin Cate said "the natural flow of the campaign is becoming stronger and more organized every day."

Anita Mitchell, chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, suspects something else is at work.

"It shows you he's more nervous than what he's letting on," Mitchell said. "Scott's closing the gap, so maybe that's got him worried a little."

Although public opinion polls show Crist ahead of Scott and show him with higher approval ratings, he can't afford to let the incumbent governor define him, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

"He can't afford to let Governor Scott dominate the media. By virtue of being the incumbent, Scott is going to get lots of publicity all the time. Crist, now that he's not in office, has to work harder at it," Jewett said.

Jewett said it's somewhat curious that Crist hasn't done more in public. "Certainly he can multitask. You do need to raise money, but he does need to remind voters who he is and why he's running, and not allow his image to be portrayed by the Scott team and the Republican Party, because they're going to savage him."

Florida voters and a national audience will see a lot of Crist during the next two weeks. He'll be everywhere talking about his campaign season book "The Party's Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat." This week, it's national cable TV shows. Next week, he starts a 13-day book tour of Florida, including appearances in Orlando, Palm Beach, Miami Beach and Tallahassee.

Susan Hepworth, communications director for the Florida Republican Party, tied Crist's new visibility to his desire to sell more books. Her boss, state Republican Chairman Lenny Curry, in an email calling Crist "Obama's Favorite Democrat," criticized his book tour schedule, which shows him "prioritizing the development of his national brand over the necessity of talking to his constituents in Florida."

The Crist and Scott campaigns are aiming their fire at each other. Neither is paying much attention to former Florida Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston, who is trailing Crist in polls and fundraising in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Jewett said the Crist campaign has to juggle multiple priorities. "What's the best balance and use of his time? Behind the scenes raising money versus out there in front of cameras and live events talking to voters and getting some [news] coverage."

Watch the Crist and Scott campaigns duel on video at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics

aman@tribune.com or 954-356-4550

Watch Crist on TV

Tuesday: "Morning Joe" on MSNBC; "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News; "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central

Wednesday: "Piers Morgan Live" on CNN

Thursday: "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" on CNN; "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on MSNBC

Friday: "Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd" on MSNBC; "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO

Source: Dutton, the unit of Penguin Random House publishing Crist's book